The poet Maya Angelou once said:
“Life is not measured by how many breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.“
Yet, breathing is key to life. And learning how to breathe well can make a world of difference in reducing stress and anxiety, and really how you experience life on a daily basis.
Did you know that, on average, a person at rest takes about 16 breaths per minute? If we do the math, this means we breathe about:
- 960 breaths / hour
- 23,040 breaths / day
- 8,409,600 / year
That’s a lot of opportunities to train awareness!
But isn’t breathing something that we just do on auto-pilot? Well…yes and no. Our respiration rate can change without us realising it. But at the same time wen can influence our respiration rate if we bring our attention to it. When we are stressed, our respiration rate changes automatically. Here’s how it works.
The Breath Changes When You Are Stressed or Anxious
When you are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system is crucial for our survival, it helps us fight or flee life threatening situations.
© Caroline Granycome – Impala Running (CC BY-SA 2.0)
In the wild, the stress response is short-lived: when faced with a lion, an antelope’s stress response is activated so it can fight or flee. An antelope’s method of choice is to run for its life. A couple of minutes later, it has either found safety or is killed by the lion. If the antelope has managed to escape the lion, its parasympathetic nervous system resumes control and returns the body to a resting state.
Human beings are unique in that we have a big frontal lobe which allows us to think more deeply than other mammals. This is a two-edged sword. It can bring a lot of enjoyment, such as anticipating positive things that are going to happen in the future. It also can cause us to feel gratitude, because we can reflect on our past in a way that makes us feel good and appreciate things that are being afforded to us in life.
However, the flipside is that stressors tend to stick with us over time. We can keep the stress response activated by ruminating over stressors that are long gone. And we can even turn on the stress response simply by anticipating a potential future stressor that might never manifest!
It’s like Mark Twain said:
“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Many of us are constantly stressed, worried, or anxious, and as a result, we are overworking our sympathetic nervous system, and are not allowing the parasympathetic return to safety. This chronic, toxic stress will ultimately produce a wear and tear on our minds, bodies and behavior.
One of the physical effects of activating the stress response is an increased heart rate. This in turn leads to increased respiration: you breathe faster, and the breaths are more shallow.
The result is that your body is getting rid of CO2 in the blood faster than normal, which causes the pH of your blood to change, which in turn can effect the function of your enzymes, organs, and muscles. Moreover, low CO2 levels cause psychological effects, such as increased feelings of anxiety and fear, and once these feelings arise, your sympathetic nervous system activates again, causing the “fight or flight” cycle to repeat.
The Relaxation Response
To break the cycle, it is key that you learn how to relax. For many of us, relaxation means zoning out in front of the TV at the end of a stressful day. However, this doesn’t do much in terms of reducing the damaging effects of stress. To effectively combat stress, you need to activate the body’s natural relaxation response, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.
The relaxation stress response is defined as:
“Our personal ability to encourage your body to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increase blood flow to the brain.”
How to Activate The Relaxation Response? Breathe!
How do you activate the relaxation response?
Breathing is free. It can be practiced anywhere. I bet you are even breathing right now!
But here’s the important thing: to actively relax the body, you need to breathe with awareness. If you do it right, this will be deeply relax the body and calm the mind.
So how do you activate the relaxation response by breathing with awareness?
Step 1: sit comfortably
Make sure you sit comfortably. You can sit on a cushion on your yoga mat or on a chair, both are perfectly fine. Straighten your back, by imagining a string attached to the top of your head, lifting up you up. Consciously try to release any tension from your body. Finally, close your eyes.
Step 2: become aware of how you breath
When you are ready, place your left hand on your heart and your right hand on your belly. Start with becoming aware of how the breathe naturally enters the body and then leaves the body again.
Where do you feel your breath? Is your belly moving when you inhale, or do you feel the expansion more in your chest area? Is the breath fast or slow? Is it shallow or deep?
Whatever you observe, try not to judge or change it. Accept that this is how you are breathing in this moment.
Step 3: breathe into your belly
Now we move on to the next step. Bring your awareness to your belly and breathe deeply into it.
You do not literally breathe into your belly, but if you breathe deeply your diaphragm will push down your abdominal organs, causing your belly to expand.
Feel how your belly expands when you inhale, and moves back in when you exhale. Make sure your exhalations are longer than your inhalations, as this relaxes your body even more. A good ration would be 1:2. So if you inhale for 3 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds.
Repeat for as you long as you like.
If you often feel stressed or anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is working overtime. Practicing belly breathing on a regular basis activates the relaxation response and brings your body back to a resting state.