How many times have your heard that when your emotions are getting the better of you? Probably at least a few times, I’m sure, but did you ever stop to wonder how breathing helps?
Conscious breathing keeps us firmly in the present moment, so that “Monkey Mind” (aka your Inner Critic) doesn’t have a chance to get in your head and take over with terribly un-helpful comments that will only compound your fear, worry, anger, stress, etc.
For example, let’s say you just got back from the doctor’s office where you got some bad news, a new diagnosis or labs that don’t look as good as you had hoped. Monkey Mind will let that news spin out of control. In the span of a couple minutes your mind has created an elaborate scenario of future doom. Now you’re even more stressed, upset, fearful, etc.
And stress wears you out! Seriously, stress actually causes fatigue. When you are experiencing stress for whatever reason, your body reacts by turning on the sympathetic nervous system – our biological “fight or flight” response. Your body then releases adrenaline, muscles tense, heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict, the digestive system slows, and so on. Unless you counteract these effects with rest, proper nutrition, or by consciously turning on the parasympathetic response – your body’s “rest and digest” mode where it can work on healing damaged tissues and other functions considered less important if survival is at stake, things like digestion or reproduction– the body will continue producing the stress response until it is fatigued or exhausted. Your mind-body has the power to switch out of the sympathetic, survival mode into its healing mode through conscious, deep breathing!
It does this by stimulating the vagus nerve, which originates in the brain stem and extends all the way down to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs, and other internal organs. The vagus nerve is an important element of your parasympathetic nervous system, so stimulating it deactivates the flight or flight response and decreases heart rate. It has the added benefit of reducing body-wide inflammation, which is so important for those of us with chronic diseases.
Conscious breathing is also an amazing detoxifier for your whole body. (Detox your mind and your body! Two for one!) It’s like massaging your body from the inside out! Deep breathing helps to mobilize the lymphatic system, which is like the sewage system of the body, removing toxins. Unlike your circulatory system, however, your lymphatic system doesn’t have a built-in pump. It relies on movement and deep breathing to flush the toxins. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm actually stimulates your lymphatic system and massages the internal organs, helping the body rid itself of toxins and creating an optimal exchange of oxygen. And a healthy lymphatic system is necessary for good immune functioning.
The best part about breathing is that anyone can do it (and it doesn’t cost a thing)!
It does, however, require practice to do well, but I guarantee that if you practice a little every day that you will see significant improvement and notable results.
There are different techniques for breathing (pranayama in yoga terms). Check out Google and YouTube for lots of helpful videos and audio files. But to get started, I like “belly breathing.” It’s my go-to exercise for stressful moments.
Here’s how to do belly breathing:
Get comfortable, either sitting or lying down. If seated, keep your knees at or below the level of your hips, and make your spine long. (If you are sitting on the floor, it may help to sit up on the edge of a pillow or folded blanket.)
Place one or both hands on the belly (around the belly button area). As you inhale, allow the air to fill your belly and expand. The hand on your belly should rise. As you exhale, the hand (and belly) comes back in towards your spine. Try to keep the inhalations and exhalations about the same length of time, or the exhalations a little longer than the inhalations. If you like, you can count in your head. Maybe you will start by counting to 4 or 5. Then as your practice improves, you will find the length of the breaths increasing.
That’s really the gist of it. Try practicing for a few minutes a day to begin, then work your way up to 10 minutes or even longer. I like to practice in my car. Of course I still need to focus on the road, so it isn’t a true meditation when done this way, but it does help with improving your breathing, getting more oxygen, and to relieve driving-related stress! Aaahhhh! For a busy mom like me, it’s like a trip to the spa.
Well, not really, but it’s still good for you.