It was an exciting morning at our house today. By 8:00 am, the alarm had been set off by my four year old, both landlords had called to see if we were okay, and the police had showed up at my door. Then while I got all of that settled, the boys turned on PAW patrol, which can’t be turned off without a tantrum these days, and I walked into the kitchen to find the cat on the counter drinking my tea like she hadn’t had a drink for days. What’s a girl to do after a start like that? Just breathe.
The power of the breath over our entire body is amazing. Our natural response in stressful situations, like my morning, is to hold our breath. We usually don’t even realize we’re doing it. Doing this naturally puts your body into a more tense, anxious or stressed state, also known as “fight or flight”. The sympathetic nervous system is triggered, increasing heart rate, and causing stress hormones to be released. Your body tightens, your mind races, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow.
All of this relates back to the days of our caveman ancestors, when we had to have our fight or flight reflexes to keep us alive. Now, we no longer face mortal danger every day, but when our body feels stress or fear, it doesn’t realize there is no tiger waiting to spring on us. It triggers the same physiological response in our body. This response was supposed to be a once in while thing, but with the level of stress that so many people live with now, this reaction is triggered a lot, and the toll it takes on the body is not a small one.
So how do we combat the inevitable stress response we feel every day? When you engage your diaphragm, simply by breathing slowly and letting your belly expand with air rather than your chest, so many good things happen in your body. Your parasympathetic nervous system is triggered, putting you into the “rest and digest” mode. Your heart beats slower, your muscles relax, and your blood pressure decreases. Your natural breathing rate slows and digestion and immunity are improved. It’s so simple, and yet so effective.
There are a few breathing techniques that I use on a regular basis that you might want to try. The first is the 4 7 8 breath. Breathe in slowly for four counts, hold it for seven counts and exhale slowly for eight counts. Repeat this cycle for 4 to 8 rounds. The second is breath counting. Sit in a comfortable position and put your hands on your belly. Feel your belly expanding with each inhale and contracting with each exhale. Begin counting your breaths as you feel your belly moving in and out, and count up to 10 to begin, or up to 20 or higher if you want to sit a little longer. A third one you can try is equal parts breath. This is simply balancing your inhale and exhale to be the same length. Inhale for four counts and then exhale for four counts. This breath helps even out body systems and bring balance to the body.
Like so many health-related things, this tool is so simple. Health is really not complicated, but like so many things in our lives, we can sure make it that way. Having tools you can use on a daily basis to improve your well-being makes a huge difference in your actual health, but also in how you feel about it, which can be just as valuable. You become empowered to change yourself and your health for the better. So next time you are feeling stressed, upset, overwhelmed, tired, angry, anxious, or like you just need a quiet minute, remember to just breathe.