Breathing gets oxygen from the air into our bloodstream. Without it we would die. Brain first.
All joking aside (was that even funny?) breathing is really important. Really important.
When we are born we take our first breath, and as we reach the end of our journey we take our last. Breathing is controlled by the brain stem – the oldest part of the brain. It is something that happens on an unconscious level (that is, we do not need to think about it for it to happen). And other parts of our brain regulate how quickly or slowly, deeply or shallowly we breathe.
So we hear you ask: “Why would learning to control our breathing improve the quality of our lives?” You know, if it is outside of our control?
Well, this is the interesting part. Just because it is automatic, doesn’t mean it cannot be controlled. In fact, it works it’s magic most effectively (that is, we attain our optimal levels of health) when we learn to control it.
Much like my German Shepherd puppy – left to his own devices, he might become an aggressive, agitated, unpredictable animal. With structure, ample play, and proper training, he is becoming a powerful protector and a beautiful friend to my children. Dog training takes work, but it is unquestionably worth it. (Shameless picture plug for Harry the dog here).
Ditto for learning to breathe properly.
Our physiology (physical state) and our emotions are in a continuous looping cycle, taking feedback from each other. Our thoughts are thrown in there too. When we are aroused (that could be positive or negative) there is a change in our breathing – we may hold our breath for periods of time, gulp air, or breathe very rapidly and shallowly. This type of breathing, in turn, sends signals to different parts of our brain, which in turn will set of a chain of events to prepare us for the situation we find ourselves in. This is VERY important. Because our brain does not have eyes, we must use our senses (including our sight) to send feedback to our brain to help it understand whether we are in some sort of danger. Are we jogging up a hill really fast? Are we getting amorous with our partner? Are we yelling at the dog who just chewed up our favorite shoes (okay, I know, I would never yell at my dog…). Ahem. Or are we, in fact, facing a real danger?
If you’ve answered ‘no’ to the above questions, and you still find yourself breathing fast and shallow, this post is especially for you. Left to its own devices, our breathing alone has the power to catapult our system into a “fight or flight” level of arousal. Living long-term in this type of hyper-aroused state (as happens for many of us with busy schedules, and definitely those who live with long-term anxiety or post-traumatic stress), leaves our system in a continuously looping hyper-aroused state. No wonder we feel either jittery or exhausted! Our bodies at some point have to ‘crash’ to recover, and then we start all over.
Have we convinced you that breathing plays a central role in our state of arousal? If so, then you are by default going to understand and accept that by controlling our breathing we can ultimately control (at least to some degree) our state of arousal. Okay, I’ll get even more redundant. By controlling our breathing, which affects our state of arousal, we can enhance our general well-being, experience more relaxation and happiness, engage in more fulfilling relationships, sleep better, and on and on.
Bam! Question answered (the one about ‘why would learning to control our breathing improve the quality of our lives?).
Okay, let’s get to it then.
Here are 5 easy tips to get you started. We encourange you to Start now.
1. Breathe in through your nose.
A few reasons for this. Obvious ones like your nose filters the air, and even warms it up before it reaches our lungs. Less obvious is that we literally have to breathe slower when we breathe through our nose.
2. Breathe into your belly-button, flop those shoulders.
Lots of people (women especially) are guilty of shallow breathing – especially when we’re more concerned with sucking our belly in than sucking air in. Extend your belly and draw your breath all the way down. Make sure you don’t hunch your shoulders up – that will most likely add to a feeling of anxiety. Ironically, when we’re told “take a deep breath”, most of us do a fast inhale and our shoulders fly up into our ears! Step in front of a mirror and watch those shoulders. Now try it again but keep your shoulders loose. Doesn’t that feel different? Better? Fill those lungs, baby!
3. Breathe all the way out.
You can breathe out through your mouth if you wish. But make sure you expel all that air. Fun fact: the act of expelling the air from your lungs activates your parasympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for a relaxation response). So, breathing out is almost more important than breathing in (especially if you have a tendency towards anxiety).
4. Breathe consciously.
By default, if you are doing the steps above and thinking about those steps, you are breathing consciously (that is, you are thinking about your breathing). When anxiety is taking over, it is doing so at a subconscious level. We need to consciously take action to override the messages it is telling the brain. By doing so, we are actively saying “no worries, mate – there is no actual disaster happening.”
5. Repeat. Frequently.
The more you repeat this conscious breathing, the easier it will become for you. Also, the more frequently your body will experience a state-change (i.e., relaxation vs. arousal), and will recognize this state as positive. Also – just like any new habit – the more you experience it, the more you will crave it – and craving relaxation is one addiction we can endorse!
Here’s a technique that Tanya used frequently with her clients. There are dozens and dozens of techniques that work perfectly well – some might argue better – than the one we’re including here. However, this one works very well for anxious folk for whom counting or having to remember any particular type of rhythm causes more anxiety (you know who you are 😉
If you are like most of us, you are a pretty busy person. If conscious breathing isn’t something you do on a regular or habitual basis, you’ll need reminders to do it – especially at first. We have had clients put an alert on their phone (one that goes off at set intervals throughout the day). Others find wearing a bracelet or elastic around their wrist is a good visual reminder.
My favorite? Stickies in places that you visit or look at frequently. Examples include your computer monitor, bathroom
mirror, steering wheel or dashboard of the car. If you have an older telephone set – put it right on the receiver – sometimes you just need to breathe before you pick up and answer that telemarketer (or your mother-in-law).
Hope you enjoyed this post. If not – just breathe! Feel all those angry and irritated feelings just drift away….