Clients get the funniest look on their faces when I tell them that I’m going to teach them to breathe. After all, breathing is something our bodies know how do automatically and naturally, right? Well, yes and no.
Most of us tend to breathe from the chest. This definitely gets some oxygen to the body, but our breathing has the capability to do so much more for us. It can actually force our bodies out of anxiety and into relaxation.
While you might be aware that your emotional state can affect your breathing (e.g. heavy breathing or holding one’s breath during anxiety, anger, or event excitement), you might not be aware that the way that you breathe affects your bodily functions and sensations and the ability to calm challenging emotions such as fear/anxiety and anger.
The science behind it is simple if you know a bit about the brain’s fight-flight system. The brain is comprised of 3 parts the central nervous system which is the coordinating system for the body, the peripheral nervous system which is a complex network of nerves extending across the body, and the autonomic nervous system which functions to regulate the body’s unconscious actions.
Within the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems work in opposition to one another, so when one system is on, the other is necessarily off.
The sympathetic nervous system’s primary function is to stimulate your fight-or-flight response. You know, the one the makes your heart rate and breathing increase and your stomach feel like it’s on a roller coaster when you get anxious or afraid.
When this system is engaged, anything that is necessary to flee or fight is also engaged, and everything that is not important to those activities shuts down. Our thinking gets muddled and the thinking centers of the brain go off line. Our muscles get tense, our stomach acid increases, our digestive tract shuts down and our vision becomes limited to the danger we feel or see.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Picture hijacked from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sympathetic_nervous_system .
The parasympathetic nervous system functions to do just the opposite. This system helps us to come down from anxiety or heightened emotions. Our bodies begin to relax and our bodily functions come back online.
It turns out that we can control these two systems, to a large extent, with our breathing. Breathing in actually excites the sympathetic fight-flight system, and breathing out turns on our parasympathetic. But something that science has more recently discovered is that belly breathing– breathing into our bellies rather than just our chest—actually engages a part of our nervous system called the vagus nerve. When the vagus nerve is engaged it serves as a switch which alerts the parasympathetic nervous system to switch on and, presto change-o, ahhhhh. . .relaxation!
Belly breathing is super simple, and very effective. Just follow these steps:
Please note that, at first, this exercise might make you feel a bit light headed while you figure out the right cadence for your body, so make sure you’re in a safe place and that you aren’t doing any activities where feeling light-headed might be dangerous. . .you know like using the electric chain-saw while driving your car.
STEP1: Imagine that there is a long tube that travels from your nostril to your belly, and as you breath in, direct that breath to the belly. If you place your hands on your stomach, you should feel your tummy moving outward.
Breathe in for approximately 4 counts.
STEP 2: Now release the breath, preferably through your mouth for approximately 7 or 8 counts. Adjust this so that you don’t pass out. You should see your belly move noticeably inward as the air is released.
While not an exact science (or at least not one that I have figured out yet), the out breath should be longer than the in breath since this is the part that actually switches on the parasympathetic/relaxation system.
Diagraph totally and unabashedly stolen from https://mbx12.org/2015/05/26/deep-breathing-drives-inner-energy-mbx-12-spring-workshop-week-7-part-1/ .
STEP 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2 for between 3 to 5 breaths or whatever feels more comfortable for your body.
A great way to tell if you are getting that breath to your belly is to put your hand in front of your mouth as you breathe out. Breath that comes from the belly is significantly warmer than breath that comes from the lungs.
Practice belly breathing at times when you’re not stressed to train your body to use this skill more automatically when you are stressed. After all, Steve Curry didn’t practice his 3-point shot during the championship game, did he?