Breathing is something we take for granted until we have difficulty doing it.
When you look a little deeper at what’s happening in our bodies when we inhale and exhale, you see it’s a dynamic and complex process that involves much more than just our lungs. It also reveals just how impacted we are by our environment.
Pressure changes outside of us and within us cause us to breathe in, and then breathe out. Gases are exchanged, many different muscles expand and contract – it’s a whole thing.
This incredible process is in the wheelhouse of our autonomic nervous system, which means it normally all goes on without us ever having to think about it. Amazingly, though – and this is such a gift – it is also within our conscious control. More on that shortly.
Our breathing is both impacted by and impacts our sympathetic (aka, fight/flight/freeze) and parasympathetic (aka, rest/digest) nervous systems. Most healthy adults breathe an average of 12-16 breaths per minute.
Many of us healthy adults, however, spend much of our days involuntarily holding our breath. Why?
It’s because many of us live in a kind of constant state of anxiety or stress. When we are stressed, the primary muscles of respiration – muscles between our ribs, our diaphragm, abdominals, and even some neck and shoulder muscles – are clenched and tight. Along with the chronic stress, chronic neck, shoulder, and back tension, digestive problems, and headaches commonly result.
We also begin breathing more through our mouths as it starts to feel difficult to get adequate oxygen. (Oddly enough, sometimes that feeling is the result of not needing to inhale more, but to exhale more deeply.)
Nasal breathing increases the amount of nitric oxide (NO) in our blood, which opens blood vessels to improve circulation and has a number of additional health benefits. Nasal breathing has a calming effect on our nervous system.
Inhaling through the mouth, on the other hand, is an inefficient “emergency” means of trying to get more oxygen. Rather than reduce our feelings of anxiety and stress, it actually creates a further state of stress inside our body.
There’s some good news, though.
Remember how I said our breathing is automatic, but it’s also under our conscious control? This means we have the power to shift ourselves from a tight and tense state of anxiety and stress to a relaxed state of peace and calm.
If we pause for just one minute, acknowledge the tension in our bodies and minds, and then breathe – our entire physiology and therefore how we feel IN THAT VERY MOMENT will change.
(That pause, that acknowledgment of how we are feeling, is the beginning and the essence of MINDFULNESS. If you do that alone, you’ve done some work.)
Once you notice you are feeling anxious or stressed, do this
Notice your breath. Notice how you are breathing. Is your mouth open? Are you breathing through your nose? Does it feel hard to get a deep breath? Are you raising your shoulders up or sticking your chin out as you attempt to breathe? Do your ribs or chest feel tight?
Once you notice your breath, a simple corrective step would be to inhale slowly through your nose and count to 3, 4, or 5 – but – and this is important – do not “try” to take a deep breath. Just a slow inhale through your nose, and then I recommend allowing your jaw to fall open and the exhale to leave your mouth with an, “ahhhh.”
Do this several times.
In through the nose, out through the mouth with a relaxed jaw. Close your mouth to inhale. Open to exhale. For this particular exercise, I recommend not pursing your lips, but really allowing your jaw to gently fall open. You can try exhaling for twice as long as you inhale, but otherwise do not force anything.
You can do this while driving, in a meeting, at dinner with the family, whenever you feel the anxiety or agitation arise. The exhale doesn’t have to be a big, loud “AAAAHHHHHH,” though sometimes it feels called for. Generally, the exhale is a gentle sigh. It can be quiet, barely perceptible. Depends on where you are and what you’re doing.
If you have the opportunity to sit back in a chair, let your feet rest evenly on the floor, and close your eyes for a few minutes, just focusing on your breath – you can practice this entire simple exercise that way as well.
Important note to overachievers
I said it once, but I will say it again. DO NOT TRY to breathe deeply, do not try to belly breathe, don’t try to do anything extra or more.
Trust that deeper breaths will come naturally as you continue simply breathing. Tense muscles will begin to relax. The balance of pressure and gases will be restored.
You can also think of any amount of time you spend mindfully breathing as making deposits into a bank. Even two minutes is still an investment that is worthwhile. You are actively prompting the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that create a feel-good sensation as well as trigger a number of beneficial anti-inflammatory and healing processes to take place.
Remember the phrase, “Train for war in times of peace.” When you set aside some time to sit and breathe in this way, you are training yourself to access that relaxed state on-demand. Like anything, the more we practice, the better we get at it.