On this site, in the Solid Blog and on Wellness Wednesdays on The Spin,
we discuss ongoing strategies, ideas and plans for sustaining ongoing
foundation for mental health and wellness.
If you or anyone is struggling or in crisis right now, please call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room. Alternatively, crisis resources can be found here.
Q: What is the one thing that every single one of us can do that can help to better regulate ourselves?
A: Take deep breaths…
AND understand that many of us don’t even know how to do it right. Also, and most importantly, the role that breathing plays with the mind and body connection.
A few years ago, I was getting a massage and the massage therapist had put her hand on my stomach and told me to take a deep breath.
I took, what I thought, was a BIG and DEEP breath. But the massage therapist was quick to point out that my breath wasn’t really all that deep at all.
In fact, she observed that my supposed deep breath only went as far as my upper chest and nowhere near my belly. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you know that they keep instructing you to take “belly breaths”.
So here’s an idea: Just because you might think you’re taking deep breaths, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. Especially if you have a tendency to worry, to be stressed or to be anxious.
One indication that you might not be taking effective breaths is if it’s challenging for you to feel calmer after taking a few deep breaths.
You’ve probably gotten into the habit of taking shallow breaths over time and might not have realized that your breathing is not optimal.
Afterall, how often have you thought about the quality of how you breathe?
But here’s a very significant reason why it’s important to know how to get the real depth in your breath: When you breathe from a shallow place (a quick breath or a breath that internally stops above your stomach), it’s signaling to your brain that you need quick access to oxygen.
From an evolutionary standpoint, as far as our brains are concerned, quick breaths means that you need the breath to do something quickly… That you’re trying to run from something… like when we’d been attacked or if there was a lion or a tiger chasing us.
We would need to be able to get our breath as quickly as possible so that we could run and get away. Survival with a capital S is the name of the game.
Whereas, if you’re taking deep breaths from deep within, it means that you’re in a more relaxed state. Which then signals to the brain that you’re not in danger.
One of the problems with modern day society is that we have learned to feel a constant level of stress that can feel like being in some kind of danger, the kind of danger that can feel like the need to go into Survival Mode to the brain.
This level of elevated alert can cause chronic anxiety and stress happening bodily within you. So when you’re able to take those deep breaths, you’ll be able to signal to your brain that you’re not, in fact, in danger and that your brain will prompt the rest of your body that you can calm down.
But while at a different time in our human history, “fight, flight or freeze” was something that didn’t happen too often, we’ve evolved to constantly be dealing with some kind of stress all the time (driving, navigating people on the sidewalk not paying attention, conflict with co-workers and family and so forth) and many of us have just defaulted to shallow breathing, which has created a constant internal feedback loop of stress.
The tendency to be experiencing stress on an on-going basis can result in further health issues like high blood pressure, suppression of the immune system, and more serious mood issues, like anxiety and depression.
Being able to breathe deeply more consistently means that you’ll be better oxygenating your system which will mean that you may find that it can have cognitive benefits, as well as promote a relaxation response, which in turn can ease tension and stress.
So, it really is as easy as breathing more deeply… but it also turns out that many of us have lost the intuitive ability to know how to do it properly! Especially since we are a society that favours flat stomachs, which then means that many of us are sucking in our stomachs, which is the exact opposite of what’s needed to be able to breath deeply.
What are ways to improve our ability to breathe deeply and more effectively?
Firstly, however, it’s important to know that it’s not going to happen in one day. Just like any other habit, it’s going to take some time to learn a new way of breathing.
And like being able to have better habits in other ways, when you are able to breathe more deeply, you will be able to use your breath efficiently when you need it. You’ll also be able to take those deep breaths to signal to your brain that it’s ok for you to not be in Survival Mode and calm down.
The better you can be at calming yourself through your breath, the more your breath will be available to you whenever you need it.
Ok, so how do we do practically do that?
One: There’s an app (or several) for that! One I have used is called Pranayama, but there are also others.
Two: Yoga classes, Restorative or Yin classes would especially be good for practicing deep breathing.
Three: There are other types of breathing practices. One which I use is called the Box Breathing Technique.
Be conscious and intentional about getting your breath as deep into your body as possible and try to get it way, way down. Think about trying to get your breath down to your toes.
• Inhale for 4 counts through the nose.
• Hold the breath for 4 counts.
• Exhale for 4 counts out through the mouth.
You’re giving precious oxygen to your brain, as well as the rest of your body.
Not only will this help to calm you, your brain and body now has more of a critical resource to operate better.
Your breath will be there for you, when something stressful is happening or you just need to take a mental time out to oxygenate your brain and body.
I hope that you decide and continue to cultivate the ability to deep breathe because you will have one more tool in your toolbox to go to when you need it.
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