Do you know how to breathe?
I see you rolling your eyes — “Everybody knows that.”
After all, breathing is what we do from the moment we’re born.
Breathing is an automatic act controlled by an ancient part of our brains —the brainstem. Its primary job is to ensure our survival and make the body tick as effectively as a Swiss watch.
But do you know that breathing is one of the few bodily functions that also can be controlled consciously?
Think of athletes, musicians, singers, yoga, meditation, dancing, and more.
“The research findings show that the advice to “take a deep breath” may not just be a cliché.” – Moran Cerf, an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Physiology of Controlled Breathing
Mindful breathing has been used for thousands of years in Eastern countries. Their spiritual practices like qi gong, tai chi, and yoga. Especially a branch of yoga called pranayama (Prana means ‘life force’ and Yama means ‘control’) has been using a breathing technique that involves slowing and pausing the breath.
In the past century, it has become popular in Western countries, too. But now scientists have begun to understand how it works.
An article published by Journal of Neurophysiology reports the results of a study conducted by Dr. Jose Herrero. It showed that focusing on breathing or doing breathing exercises when under stress, can change the brain. Something people have known for thousands of years.
And there is more.
We all know that through breathing, we supply our internal organs with oxygen. But the physiology of breathing is complicated.
At inhale, the mainstream of blood goes to your lungs, where it becomes enriched with oxygen. At exhale, your heart pushes blood to the inner organs to deliver the oxygen.
Inhaling activates a sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system (NS), and your heart rate goes up. In contrast, exhaling activates the other branch of your autonomic nervous system, called the parasympathetic, and your heart rate goes down.
Your brain regulates the heart rate between inhales, and by slowing your breathing, you give your brain more time to do that.
By prolonging your exhalations, you enhance activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, you feel calmer and more relaxed.
“The breathing manipulation activated different parts of the brain, with some overlap in the sites involved in automatic and intentional breathing. Exercises involving volitional breathing appear to alter the connectivity between parts of the brain and allow access to internal sites that normally are inaccessible to us.” – Moran Cerf
Benefits of Conscious Breathing
Research also shows evidence of the benefits of mindful breathing that can:
- help to manage anger, anxiety, and stress by calming your brain;
- slow the heart rate and normalizes the blood pressure;
- calm your mind and sharpens your focus;
- help with depression;
- improve problems asthma, digestion, and low back pain;
- help you to better feel bodily sensations;
- decrease inflammation in the body.
From Shallow to Deep Breathing
Shallow breathing has become a part of our modern lifestyle, with proven negative consequences to our health.
It’s when your ribcage expands outward a bit but your belly doesn’t move–you’re not feeling your lungs with air properly.
Have you noticed yourself doing this?
There are different breathing practices for different goals.
What I want is for you to have a toolbox of techniques to regulate anxiety and stress. Deep breathing is one of them.
Making mindful breathing a part of your everyday life will not only help you feel calmer, but it is also one of the ground self-regulating techniques your further healing will build upon.
“Learning how to breathe calmly and remaining in a state of relative physiological relaxation, even while accessing painful and horrifying memories, is an essential tool to recovery.” – Bessel van der Kolk
Now, let’s practice.
Belly breathing is also called the diaphragm or abdominal breathing technique.
Before beginning the exercise, please, read a note of caution at the end of this article.
Ready? Let’s go.
Sit or stand with your spine straight.
Place one hand on your belly. Leave another hand on your knee or place it on your chest. Whatever feels best to you.
Make yourself comfortable.
You can choose to keep your eyes open or close them. It’s entirely up to you.
Now, inhale slowly and deeply through the nose to the count of four.
Feel your abdomen expand while the air fills your lungs.
Pause for a moment, then slowly exhale through your nose or pursed lips to the count of four.
At the end of the exhalation, contract your abdominal muscles slightly to push residual air out of your lungs to the count of five.
Pause for a moment, and then inhale.
How do you feel?
More settled, calm and relaxed, I hope.
Try this exercise in the beginning just for a minute or five to six breaths to get used to. Remember that it’s not about taking in as much air as possible–this may result in hyperventilation and anxiety attack. It’s about breathing calmly and slowly.
In a few days, when you feel comfortable, slowly prolong the exercise for up to five minutes a day.
Foundation of Healing
”By controlling the breath, you can influence every aspect of your life. You can train yourself to breathe in a way that has a positive influence on your health.” – Sheila Patel, MD
It takes time and practice before mindful breathing becomes second nature. But it is possible to spend five minutes a day on conscious breathing, even on a busy day.
How do I know?
Because it’s how I learned it.
Another bit of good news is that you can practice deep breathing everywhere: on the way to work, standing in a supermarket line, or while watching your favorite show.
As Mark Sichel pointed out, if you change your thinking, your breathing will get deeper and slower. Change your breathing and your thinking will get calmer and clearer.
The choice is yours!
A note of caution: Are you prone to spacing out, experiencing chronic dissociative states like feeling unreal (or depersonalization)? If so, be careful. I will advise you to keep your eyes open during the exercise and have an anchor—something that always makes you feel safe, like a blanket or a photo—beside you to help you feel grounded in case your sense of unreality becomes stronger. If you are in treatment and haven’t learned this technique yet, please consult your clinician/counselor before trying. Thank you.
Let me know what you think in the comments below, or send me an email, or a message. Visit my Facebook page. And if you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends. Thank you!
Images by Pixabay and Unsplash
Want to read more about conscious breathing? Check out these additional websites: