Breathing is our basic support system. In times of stress and difficulty, simply focusing on breathing can restore a sense of inner capability and calm. It’s for this reason that my eye was drawn to two recent books on the topic of breathing: Breath, by James Nestor and Close your Mouth by Patrick McKeown, founder of the Buteyko Clinic.
I’ve enjoyed sitting down to read both of these accessible books. It’s felt relaxing and strangely productive at the same time. And, based on a resting respiratory rate of 12 breath cycles per minute, I’ve taken somewhere close to 72,000 breaths as I’ve read. It’s caused me to be far more aware of my breathing, moment-to-moment, and has got me thinking about the role breathing plays in emotional and neurological regulation, particularly when experiencing anxiety.
Breath Awareness: A Powerful Tool
Become more aware of our breathing in any given moment provides valuable data about our experiencing within and our relationship to the world around us. For anyone who wants to build breath awareness into daily life, it can help to try sitting and tuning into what you experience in the present moment. Aim to narrate or describe what it is you experience about your breathing. Begin each sentence with the phrase, “right now, I’m aware that…..”
Questions that can support this awareness exercise include:
· What word describes my breathing right now? Is your breathing laboured? Smooth? What other word(s) express the felt sense of your experiencing?
· Consider the pace of your breathing: fast, slow, gradually increasing or decreasing in pace?
· Consider the depth of your breathing: shallow, light breaths or somewhere closer to deep breathing?
· Consider anything you notice about the outbreath as distinct from the inbreath. How does your exhale differ from your inhale?
· Consider where in your body you sense the breath as it moves within your system. Which muscles move as you breathe? Does your breath change with your increasing awareness?
Having greater awareness allows us to notice thought patterns, breathing changes and tension in our body. Our breathing patterns can be signals of anxiety building and allow us to choose to respond in a way that is self-supporting and self-caring.
Breathing and the Autonomic Nervous System
When we experience anxiety, or face some stress or threat, our autonomic nervous system prepares the body for fight or flight in response. Our heart rate increases, muscles tense and our digestion slows. Most aspects of our nervous system cannot be consciously controlled. Breathing is unique in that, through conscious breathing, you can regulate your nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the way our body regulates processes for rest and activity, and this process happens automatically. It consists of 2 main branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch of the ANS stimulate the body’s fight or flight response. When faced with a danger, or potential danger, the sympathetic system causes changes in our heart rate, rate of respiration, digestion and muscle tension so that we are physically prepared to fight or flee. This happens as soon as our brain detects threat, even if the brain is mistaken. For example, on seeing a coil of rope from the corner or your eye, your heart may begin to beat fast and your breathing rate will automatically increase. Your brain has read the sensory data as “snake” and responded in much the same way as it would if you saw an actual snake. This process is extremely useful to our survival. However, when we remain in a state of heightened sympathetic stimulation, our body remains tense, on edge and anxious.
The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is focussed on restoring calm and balance to our bodies after sympathetic stimulation. It prevents the body from overworking and brings our breathing, heart rate and muscle tension back to a more regulated state in order to facilitate rest and recovery. Breathing has a vital role to play in kickstarting the parasympathetic response of calm and balance. It’s been shown that deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic branch of the ANS and decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone. Consider building in helpful slow and deep breathing practice, particularly focusing on the releasing exhale breath, when you sense your nervous system would benefit from calm and balanced regulation.
I’d like to share with you three simple breathing exercises that I’ve found beneficial for tapping into the power of the breath to aid emotional and neurological regulation.
Attend to Posture
Aim for posture that is supportive of breathing by allowing space and expansion of the respiratory muscles of the diaphragm. Allow your body to do what it naturally does: breathe. Brething can be well supported when your posture allows your spine to extend, with your shoulders back and without tension. Aim to notice ease in your body and to allow your posture to support efficient and effective breathing.
When we are relaxed, our breathing slows down. By slowing down your breathing, you can affect other bodily systems so that heart rate decreases, and cortisol levels drop.
· Find a comfortable sitting position, and place your feet flat on the ground.
· Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it.
· Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
· Breathe in gently and regularly. Some people find it helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5. You may not be able to reach 5 at first.
· Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out gently, counting from 1 to 5 again, if you find this helpful. In time, you can begin to slow down and extend the outbreath.
· Keep doing this for 3 to 5 minutes.
This technique requires us to concentrate on our breathing and can bring a greater sense of balance and harmony.
· Begin by slowly exhaling all your air out.
· Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.
· Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.
· Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
· At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.
Take a Moment to Breathe and Put it into Practice.
So, in these times of economical uncertainty and elevated tension, attending to the breath can be a cost effective (i.e., free!) form of self-care and self-support, equipping you to find greater ease, calm and balance in your daily life. I’d love to hear if any of the suggestions here free you up to catch our breath, and breath a sigh of relief during an otherwise hectic world. And if you are curious to know more, I’d certainly recommend Nestor’s and McKeown’s books.
· Gerritsen, R., & Band, G. (2018). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 397.
· Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.
· McKeown, P. (2004). Close Your Mouth. Buteyko Books: Moycullen.
· Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Books: London.