When was the last time you considered your breath? You take breathing for granted. As long as it is working so that you can work, rest and play you do not give it a second thought. From the moment you are born this essential process happens subconsciously, fuelling the body, feeding the cells the oxygen they need to perform their essential tasks to keep you alive and in good health and getting rid of the carbon dioxide that would otherwise build up to toxic levels in your system. On average, you take about 960 breaths an hour (that’s over twenty three thousand breaths a day). Until that moment when this process stops and your thoughts, emotions, feelings and awareness are no more.
The Power of Breath
The power of my breath was brought home to me most strongly when I as a teenager learning to SCUBA dive. Part of the training process is to learn drills should something happen underwater and you have to safely get back to the surface. One such drill is buddy- breathing. You always dive in pairs and if one of you runs out of air or your equipment malfunctions the other one can share their air while you both make a safe ascent. On one such practice dive, I was sharing my air with my buddy. As my buddy passed the mouth- piece to me so that I could take my 2 breaths, the instructor, unknown to me, turned off my air.
The feeling of trying to draw air and getting nothing in return sent me into panic. In fear I broke for the surface, which can be fatal for a diver, as the air is pressurised and expands as you rise. The instructor grabbed me before I got too far and got me to think about what I had to do to be safe. As I shared his air gratefully I felt the panic subside and clarity of thought return.
Needless to say, it was a dramatic lesson in how we are wired to take that next life- sustaining breath. I was also intrigued about how to control my thoughts, feelings and emotions in such a situation. Knowledge, practice, awareness and experience are all essential ingredients to success during an otherwise potentially stressful event. There are practical steps you can take to ensure you respond with confidence, calm, effectiveness and creativity.
The Relaxation Response
There are two strands to the way you respond to situations. There is either the relaxation response or the stress response. We are most familiar with the stress response: fight, flight or freeze. The relaxation response is less well known and is coined “rest and digest”. These two strands activate completely different parts of the nervous system.
When you are stressed and in the fight, flight or freeze response your sympathetic nervous system is engaged, driving your heart rate up, quickening your breath and dilating your blood vessels and muscles for action. This stress response is really important and useful in small doses. When your system is exposed to this long term, it can harmful affects on your mind and body, suppressing your immune system, making you irritable and aggressive, reducing effectiveness and creativity and much more.
Conversely, when you are relaxed, your parasympathetic nervous system is active, your heart slows, your breath slows and deepens and your blood vessels and muscles relax. You are meant to be relaxed for the majority of the time, promoting a strong immune system, a calm and relaxed demeanor, giving you resilience during stressful situations because generally your body and mind are not worn out by the excessive effects of long term stress.
The Power of Awareness
When you find yourself in stressful situations for much of the time, you can learn to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. This promotes relaxation. You can learn to relax your muscles and calm and deepen your breathing so that you remain calm, attentive and aware throughout the day. The first stage to this is awareness. You have to realise that your body is reacting in a stressful way. Awareness exercises practiced regularly allow you to become more mindful of your state of mind and body so that you can recognise your state of being and consciously act to alter your state. They have the additional advantage of regularly relaxing your body system, keeping it calm for more of the time so that you enjoy better health and well- being. You will also interact with people better as a result and give off a feeling of calm and confidence.
Deep breathing in meditation and pranayama (yoga) practice is used to access spiritual connection, calming the body and allowing the mind’s brain waves to change to a beta state and even lower giving deeper rest, relaxation, awareness and realisation.
Controlling the breath
The breath is a powerful force. Not only does it keep you alive, it also helps you manage your mood and state of being. People tend to breath one of two ways, either by moving the chest or stomach. Chest breathing tends to be more shallow and is reminiscent of the stress response. Breathing from the stomach is much deeper and calmer. You are not literally breathing with your stomach. You are moving your stomach out, leaving room for your diaphragm to contract down, drawing more air into your lungs. This is much more healthy, calming and relaxing for the whole body. This is how you control your mood and response. Practice breathing deeply using the stomach and you can use this to activate the relaxation response during more stressful situations.
Moving Meditation Course
This is one of many methods I use with clients to help with confidence, awareness and relaxation. I cover this and many more during my Moving Meditation Courses. Please e- mail firstname.lastname@example.org to learn about future events. We can also discuss how we can work together to build your confidence from the inside out. Click here to find out about future Moving Meditation Courses.
Over to You
What do you notice about your breathing when you are relaxed and stressed? Do you find you experience shortness of breath? How do you control your mind and body when you’re in a stressful situation? I’d love to hear from you and learn about how you use your breath.
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