It is something we all do, and yet something we rarely think about, except in times of exceptional attention. “When you are upset, take a deep breath and count to ten.” “My heart is racing and I feel like I can’t breathe.” “The quiet sound of a baby breathing.” All are aspects of our breath, and are vital to our experience as living beings.
The breath is the gateway to all kinds of awareness, for a simple reason. It is both necessary for life and can also be controlled. Your breath will naturally and unconsciously change as you respond to stress, either becoming more fast and shallow, or more slow and deep. Additionally, we can focus on our breathing and intentionally speed it up or slow it down, breathe more deeply or more shallowly.
This fact points us to the deeper truth that there is a feedback loop between your body and your mind. Your memories and responses are not simply stored “in your brain”; they are stored in your body as well, manifested in reactions by the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, and other systems. You sense a threat and your body responds almost before you are even aware of it, subsequently associating the bodily reaction with the related mental state. There is a tremendous body of research around this relationship; studies of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety are two excellent places to start.
Having said, you don’t need to have a clinically diagnosed disorder to feel the impact of this relationship. The simple, garden variety stress of paying the bills, negotiating time with loved ones, or even erratic traffic (my personal pet peeve) also manifests in the body. And, unfortunately, this kind of stress is particularly deadly. You body’s stress responses are designed to DO something with that extra energy. When there is no lion to flee from, the response is damaging to the body. Hormonal responses have nowhere to go. Increased oxygenation and blood flow has no response from the muscles they are expecting to fuel. This response, over time, is destructive to both your body and to your mental state.
So, what to do?
Recall that just as our mental state impacts our body, so does our body impact our mental state. Also recall that a focus on breathing is the gateway to better managing the whole enterprise. You can influence your body, and therefore influence your mental and emotional states, by taking a moment and focusing on your breath.
So let’s start with a simple exercise. Take a few quiet moments. Breathe in slowly and completely through your nose. Feel your lungs expand in all directions as the air flows from your sinuses, into your chest, and into your belly. Breathe out completely, like gently squeezing a balloon. Feel the air flow in reverse, from your belly, to your chest, and out your nose. Rinse, repeat. If you like, count quietly and evenly to yourself for each inhalation and exhalation. One, two, three, four… Use whatever count you like. Your exhalations should be equal to or longer than your inhalations. If they aren’t, gradually slow your exhale.
There, feel better already?
This is a process that takes practice. You are developing the habit of being aware of the state of your body and your mind, and you are starting with the breath, which connects them. Take your time, and try a little each day. We will continue to build on this exercise as we work together to become more healthy.
Be well, and see you soon. Thanks for reading.