If you’re somewhat perplexed by the title of this blog post, then good! I wanted to catch your attention and discuss something that I have found to be very important: our breathing.
“What do you mean our breathing? Don’t we do that all the time? Why do I need to read a blog post on it?”
Yes, we do involuntarily (for good reason!) breathe, but did you know that there are different ways we breathe? Improper breathing can affect how we mentally and physically feel and, in reverse, how we mentally and physically (i.e. stress) feel can lead to improper breathing.
To give you an idea, imagine what is going on in the following scenarios:
You are being chased by a grizzly bear. Chances are, you are breathing rapidly with shallow breaths (drawing in minimal air to the lungs), making a lot of effort, and are heavily expanding your chest during this type of breathing; this is referred to as thoracic breathing or chest breathing. This is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for that fight-or-flight response we get when we sense any kind of danger, stress, or threat. This chest breathing doesn’t optimally use our lungs (via our diaphragm) and can even lead to hyperventilation. This type of breathing isn’t necessarily bad since it gives you the ability to “run” from this grizzly bear or help during vigorous exercise, but, as you can imagine, can be unnecessary and make you feel more anxious and stressed if it is done during a time when you aren’t vigorously exercising or needing to employ a fight-or-flight response.
You just did something relaxing and feel very calm. Chances are, you are breathing slowly (drawing in optimal air to the lungs via the diaphragm), are making a minimal effort, and are expanding your abdomen/belly as you take in air; this is referred to as diaphragmatic breathing. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which has the opposite effect of the fight-or-flight response and induces a feeling of calm and relaxation. This is the kind of breathing we want to practice and is beneficial to our minds and bodies. Let’s go further into how we can practice this below.
Currently, there is active research on the beneficial effects of deep breathing on our minds and bodies, and there is a reason why it has been featured on the websites of NPR, Harvard, TIME, New York Times, National Institutes of Health, The Wall Street Journal, and there are even new companies that aim to provide tools to help us improve our breathing.
As someone who tends to exhibit the fight-or-flight response at unnecessary and non-threatening times (a work in progress!), I can personally vouch for the benefits of deep breathing on reducing the adverse effects of tension, stress, and anxiety. In fact, my journey into the world of yoga was when I first became aware of how often I took shallow breaths and didn’t utilize the most out of my lungs–that type of breathing just felt normal to me, but little did I know it had adverse effects on my body and mind.
To help us improve our breathing, my yoga teacher would often tell us to lie down on the ground, place one hand on our belly, the other on our heart/chest, and visualize the breath expanding in our belly as we inhale (through contraction of our diaphragm) and notice our belly slowly deflating as we exhale. We would switch between inhaling through the nose and exhaling out through the mouth, as well as sighing out through our mouth as we exhaled. (Side note: I recommend sighing out through your mouth to release some tension, it feels good! Make some noise with it too!) We would eventually work up to pranayama by the end of class, which is the ancient practice of controlling the breath, and I would find myself feeling a sense of calm after doing these breathing exercises. If you are interested, you can read more about pranayama at this link and this TIME article provides some pranayama exercises as well.
I took the breathing exercises I learned in my yoga classes and have started to practice deep breathing in my daily life. If there’s a time when I feel overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, restless, etc, I take a few minutes to perform some belly breathing. I can’t say there has been a time that I haven’t felt calmer, or at the least, less tense/anxious/stressed after deep breathing. It is important to note that deep breathing isn’t a cure-all and won’t get rid of the underlying problems that are causing you stress, but it can at least temporarily provide you with a sense of calm and help get you to a better place both physically and emotionally/mentally. Feeling calmer can lead us to have more clarity in situations and use our rational thought in problem-solving, so it’s always beneficial to try to get to a more calm place when you find yourself in a stressed-out state of mind.
With all this being said, I would like to share some resources for you (aside from the links I provided above) to help you practice deep/belly breathing:
General Deep Breathing: This is a general deep breathing technique you can use anywhere. Find a place to sit or lie down and take a moment to just breathe as you normally would. When ready, breathe in slowly through your nose and feel your abdomen expand fully. I personally like to close my eyes, but you can choose to close your eyes or leave them open as you prefer. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth or nose (whichever feels better) and feel your abdomen slowly deflate. You can choose to place your hands on your belly so you can physically feel what your belly is doing. I recommend trying this breathing technique for at least 8 rounds of inhale/exhale, but play around with doing it for shorter or longer periods of time, breathing in/out through your mouth/nose, and make sure to do what works best for YOU.
4-7-8 Technique: This technique makes use of “counting” while you inhale and exhale to maximize belly breathing. In this technique, you inhale through the nose and count to 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and then exhale for a count of 8. Check out a guided video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRPh_GaiL8s.
Visual Breathing Guide: This is a fantastic video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wdbbtgf05Ek) that provides a visual reference to sync your breaths to. If you are a visual person like me, this will be an invaluable resource to help slow down and take deep breaths, as well as be a calming resource for the eyes as well.
*I want to make a note that if you ever find yourself feeling worse, or hyperventilating, after doing any breathing exercises then please stop practicing them. We are all individuals and what may work for one person may not work for another, so please be compassionate to yourself.*
There you have it, a reason/solution for why and how we can truly use our breathing to our physical and mental/emotional advantage. In addition to the biological survival mechanism we absolutely need breathing for, we can use it as a tool to help induce relaxation and reduce the effects of stress, anxiety, and tension that we will all inevitably feel at times in our lives.
Who knew how much power our bellies hold? Go forth and give your belly (and your overall self) some much-needed, and deep, love..and maybe a rub too! 🙂