A Lesson in Breathing
If I were to ask you to stop what you’re doing right now and hone in on your breathing, the majority of us might find ourselves breathing relatively shallowly using just our lungs - not our diaphragm. Not such a big deal we might think - our heart beats without thought, why bother noticing breath? Alone it’s not a particularly profound statement. Yet if we recognise the systemic nature of our bodies, minds and connections, we might begin to see some relevance in looking into breath as a means to aid health and relaxation. Let’s break it down.
Breathing has a huge impact on our physical bodies - how we breath is therefore critically relevant. When we’re at rest, our system uses less oxygen than when we’re working - be that physically, emotionally or mentally. When in high performance, our body needs to replenish nutrients and oxygen more rapidly to keep ourselves in functioning order. It’s all well and balanced when our oxygen intake system - those holes in the front of your face - are working in sync with the demands of both the internal and external physical world. We take in more air when we're moving and less when resting.
But this synchrony of breath and action is not always so. Our minds that developed to navigate, plan and strategise the material world are all too often excessively involved in constructing reality instead of being in reality. Many refer to this state as doing vs being. Thinking rather than experiencing. This means we're susceptible to respond to things we perceive over what may or may not actually be there.
You might be able to relate to the following scenario: you’re walking down the road and there you see your friend walking down the other side coming toward you. You wave and smile, assuming they’ll see you, and begin to get excited about the potential social contact. But they just walk past. They’ve not noticed you. You’re sure you were obviously waving to them. And you’re sure they saw you. What does your mind start doing? Maybe it goes ‘oh no! What have I done?’, or ‘are you ok? What’s up?’, or maybe ‘how stupid of me!’. From here you may then descend into a secondary level of thoughts, ‘of course they ignored me, I’m not worthy of attention’, ‘stupid person, I don’t like you anyway’ or ‘I must have done something wrong, what are all the things I’m bad at’.
See how many realities were created by the mind in such a short time? Ok, a harmless example, but the point stands. The longer one stays in a head space of descending into deeper and deeper levels of self-chatter, the noise gets louder and the message gets quieter. Going deeply into all these thoughts is also likely to make us tense as we try and make sense of every little thing that was, or might have been, something we thought we could control. This tension will likely show in our muscles, jaw, temples, fleshy bit between the thumb and index finger and in our breathing.
As our personal stress increases so our tension increases. Many of the muscles in our bodies are interconnected so tightness in one place affects tightness elsewhere. Storing tension therefore impacts our ability to breath fully from the diaphragm - reducing inhalations to weak, short stutters into the top of the lungs. Unfortunately, this style of breathing adds further pain to our problem in that short, shallow breaths are those interpreted by our bodies as stress signals. This can send people descending down a spiral of reactions that results in burnout, adrenal fatigue and a host of other unpleasant symptoms.
When experiencing these symptoms, it's natural to retreat back to our survival instincts - back into our reptilian brain. But this means more of the same way of being. Adrenaline and cortisol flood our system. Alarm bells ring. Breaths turn short and shallow. Vision narrows. Our body prepares us to fight, flee or reduce the impact of whatever threat is inbound. This is all useful if a sabre tooth is coming toward us as blood gets directed away from gut and toward the lungs - readying our muscles for a speedy get away. Yet too often in our modern lives is perceived threat exaggerated by our own overthinking - the same over thinking that enabled our species to navigate and strategise our dominance on this planet. What may have been an emotional or somatic sensation has now been 'made nonsense of' by our cognition.
When our thinking brains get involved on top of this, all manner of threatening scenarios are thought up as part of an evolutionary preparation to react. While we know cognitively we’re not experiencing multiple attacks at once, our mind is eager to offer up the worst possible scenarios as a means of defence. It’s evolutionarily desirable to foresee threats ahead of them occurring rather than responding to them in the moment. But in this place of survival instinct, being able to separate our hypotheses from our hunches can become a burdensome task. Even more so for those in strained or hostile environments.
So tension, stress and the thinking mind seem to create a perfect hell when combined.
Clearly what keeps the body safe can quickly turn into its most dangerous enemy from within. This is where deep diaphragmatic breathing comes in.
“A study was carried out on the effects of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect (feelings of emotional distress) and stress in healthy adults. Of the two groups involved in the study, those who engaged in diaphragmatic breathing showed a significant decrease in negative affect and cortisol levels after the intervention compared to baseline. This group also exhibited heightened concentration compared with the control group”. Read the whole article here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
Diaphragmatic breathing not only encourages focus on relaxing the muscles deep down above our belly; it also activates our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which, when aroused, triggers a secretion of relaxing hormones into the blood stream. These serve to lower our heart rate and counter the stressful concoction coursing through our veins. With practice, benefits of practicing diaphragmatic breathing include deeper, more restful baseline breathing, higher tolerance to prior stressful triggers and greater levels of resourcefulness going forward. Knock on effects of this include improved digestion, sleep regulation, tension reduction and mental clarity.
An exercise you might like to try could look like this:
Find yourself someplace quiet and safe. Sit, with your back straight and your feet firmly planted on the floor. Place your hands on your lap palms down. Bring your attention to your tummy muscles. Begin by allowing them to relax. Let your belly hang out nice and relaxed. As you’re relaxing your tummy, breathe in and out, as deeply as you can. At first you might find your breathing goes straight into your lungs - don’t worry - simply keep breathing, focusing on relaxing your tummy muscles. Take as long as you need.
When you’ve settled, bring your awareness to your breath. Breathing in, feel your tummy extend and open - aiming to fill the deepest part of your tummy and lungs with air first. Fill yourself with oxygen until your tummy is so full of air you could burst. Now, and only now, feel your lungs begin to fill with air as you allow them to inflate. Noticing the point just before you’re breathing out and releasing. Through your exhalation, this time tensing your core and diaphragm to force the air out. Do this slowly so that you create a flow between relaxing and breathing in, and contracting your core and breathing out. In, relaxing. Out, releasing.
I like to place my hands over my abdomen as I do this and imagine a white ball building in my tummy. Whatever works for you is fine. Breathe like this for no less than 10 minutes.