From our first breath until we breathe our last, everything in life begins with the breath. It is vital for life. But is there something about the breath that we in the West have been missing?
Did you know that we breathe differently depending on how we feel? When we’re stressed our breath automatically tends to be quick and shallow. It’s slower and deeper when we’re calm.
We can’t seem to TALK ourselves out of a stress reaction because we’re full of the stress chemicals readying us to fight/ flee/ freeze – and we are hard-wired to laser-focus on the threat.
BUT there is hope! We can BREATHE ourselves out of a stress reaction by activating the “parasympathetic nervous system,” our “rest and digest,” system, through our OUT-breaths. We can “breathe ourselves down” from any strong unwanted emotion such as anger, fear, or depression, simply with brief periods of controlled breathing.
Yes, you can change the way you feel depending on how you breathe! Check out the great info graphic on Dr. Seppala’s page when you click the link. She uses the breathing exercises just below with returning war veterans to help them to control the symptoms of PTSD and get their lives back. Fascinating stuff!
Breathing exercises to calm yourself
Dr. Seppala teaches her veterans this simple yogic breathing exercise, which I have modified for simplicity.
- Sit quietly, away from other people (in the restroom at work if needs be).
- With your left forefinger, close your left nostril and exhale as much air as you can through the other (right) nostril.
- Keep your forefinger on that left nostril and now also inhale through the right nostril.
- Switch nostrils, holding the right nostril closed and both exhale and inhale through the left.
- Switch nostrils after each inhale.
- Continue for five minutes.
- That’s it! Simple is good when you are stressed.
You always start on the exhale. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you remember that it felt like you couldn’t get enough oxygen, when actually you were hyperventilating. Your body was giving you extra oxygen for the fight or flight ahead. No tiger was chasing you though, so you had too much oxygen as compared to carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. Your goal with these breathing exercises is to increase the carbon dioxide.
Here is another VERY simple breathing technique that builds on the information about needing more carbon dioxide when you are stressed. It is called the 7-11 method. These authors recommend you do it several times a day for five or more minutes during any stressful time in your life. This technique, done several times a day for 5-10 minutes, will keep your blood pressure and heart rate down and your immune system up throughout the period of stress.
It’s really easy.
Breathing in, you count to 7.
Breathing out, you count to 11.
Repeat for 5-10 minutes, a few times a day during stressful times.
You do want to inhale deeply, so you see your diaphragm pushing your tummy out, to be sure you are filling your lungs.
- The Stimulating Breath (to wake up, be more alert), wherein you inhale and exhale rapidly through your nose, in-breath and out in equal duration, mouth closed and relaxed, for up to 15 seconds.
- The 4-7-8 Relaxing Breath, where you inhale for the count of 4, hold for the count of 7 and then exhale for the count of eight.
- Breath Counting for Focus. Whereby you count each exhale (one) (two) through five, then start over counting each exhale one to five again. Most people find themselves going beyond five all too often.
Here’s the best part. However you train yourself to activate your “rest and digest,” response on command, there is one more benefit, from the “association” response we all learned about from Pavlov’s dogs.”
In a short period of time you will have trained your body to begin to calm simply by beginning the exercise. Place your finger at the side your nostril in or count your exhale just once, depending which practice you pick, and your body associates the activity with relaxation – and starts to calm!
In summary, modern medicine is now accepting what native and eastern peoples have known for millennium, that by controlling the breath, you can powerfully influence your health and well being. Choose any one of the 5 practices, or many others listed online, and take control of your stress.