How many of us have heard, at some point, someone telling us to “just breathe” when we are in distress??
Breathing is something that we do naturally and often unconsciously. We just do it and don’t give it much thought or attention – it’s natural. Breathing not only gives us life, but it can help us in so many ways to manage our physical, mental, and spiritual health. The key is in deep breathing or belly breathing. There is good reason for it. Deep breathing helps with heart health, brain health, digestion, immunity, blood pressure, pain, stress, anxiety, and emotional regulation, to name but a few.
Deep breathing affects the parasympathetic nervous system fostering a sense of calmness thanks to the signals sent to the brain instructing the body to relax.
When the body is able to relax, we are better able to be in the here and now and respond to what is going on, versus react. When we are calm and in the here and now, we are present, able to have clarity, listen to our body, and slow down. This enables us to meet whatever we are experiencing more mindfully. It can be really important when we are feeling stressed, experiencing anxiety and emotional distress. We reap the most benefits of our breath when we do it consciously and with intention.
During moments of stress and emotional distress, when we practice deep breathing, we are actually instructing the body to not only relax, but to also let go of the emotional energy rather than hang onto it.
For example, when we feel anxious about something, our breath is often more shallow, getting caught in the chest. This can lead to increased heart rate and tension in the body. When we shallow breathe it can be really challenging to catch our breath and our system can feel like it’s gasping, often intensifying the experience of anxiety. Sometimes, it can also lead to a panic attack. Deep breathing can help to bring us back into feeling anxiety (and other intense emotions) in a more manageable way. So, “just breathe” can be a great strategy to keep our distress more manageable.
Sounds easy right? It can actually be more challenging than we realize.
Because when we get stressed, we go back to what we know. This is why it is important to practice breathing consciously and intentionally. We often hear from people that deep breathing was not effective for them and sometimes this is because we don’t practice it….. and if what we know is shallow breathing, it’s going to be harder to connect to the belly breath because it is very common when we are distressed to go back to what we know. So the key is practice. Intentionally practicing deep breathing helps make it skill that we remember when we need it.
So, here are some easy things for you to practice.
A very common exercise is often referred to as Box Breathing. Box Breathing is when we take a breath in (through the nose) and hold it for 4 seconds then breathe out (through the mouth) and hold for 4 seconds. Repeat this process several times.
A great trick is to start with an out breath through the mouth and then breathing in through the nose. When you start with the out breath, you have no choice but to do this consciously because you actually have to pause and think about it. When someone says breathe, we seem to automatically start with an in breathe which can keep the breath shallow. Starting with the out breath, helps us to almost immediately connect to the belly breathing….give it a try!!