Breathing for Wellbeing
How it works: Breathing and the Nervous System
Breath is the only autonomic bodily function that we can consciously control. Working with it can have many interesting outcomes because it is directly linked to our autonomic nervous system. It is the most direct way to take effect on the bodily functions that are normally completely out of our control, and the simplest way to effectively relax our bodies in a matter of minutes.
The autonomic nervous system has three divisions, two of which are linked to our breath: The Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic nervous system. The former controls out “fight-or-flight” response and is most active when we are under stress. The latter is responsible for stimulation of “rest-and-digest” or “feed and breed” activities that occur when the body is at rest. The hypothalamus is the part of our brain that controls the Autonomic Nervous System and tries to maintain a balance between these two divisions according to the situation we are living.
In our society today, there is often an unbalance between our Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems, due to constant over-stimulation and the demands of modern life. Constant stress and the activation of the Sympathetic nervous system can cause several health issues in the long run, in part due to its effect on our organs’ functions. Over time, it can lead to conditions like high blood pressure, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain, and mood disorders. But just as we can get stressed by thoughts and feel how our body reacts to that, we can also inform our brain through our body that everything is calm and it’s time to relax. And because we can control our breathing pattern, we can use it to send that message to our brain. It turns out that during inhalation, our heart beats slightly faster and its rhythm slows down during exhalation. In the same way, shallow and rapid breathing will tell our brain it is time to fight or flee and send a flow of energy through our body. And deep and slow breathing will activate the parasympathetic system and tell our body to remain calm.
Just as stress can affect our bodies by activating the Sympathetic nervous system, so can breathing exercises counteract these effects by stimulating the Parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Reducing overall tension can be done even before having to work on our emotions and our thoughts (even if that would be very helpful in the long run). It is a purely physiological reaction.
Breathing Exercises: Preliminary Instructions
For best results, try to maintain a certain level of self-awareness during these exercises, so you can feel the effects to their full extent. Bear in mind it is normal if your thoughts wander somewhere else from time to time. But if you realize that is happening, try to slowly bring your attention back to your breath without judging yourself (I can assure you it happens to all who practice meditation or relaxation techniques).
What I mean by self-awareness is: trying to stay conscious and attentive to your breathing, and to your body, as well as to all the different sensations you might feel during the exercise. Awareness of your thoughts means realizing there is a thought going through your mind without following it and without identifying yourself to it, so you can bring your attention back to your body and your breath. The same can be done with passing emotions.
Try these simple breathing exercises for a few minutes and see for yourself.
Relaxing Abdominal Breathing
Also called “belly breathing” because of the movement visible in the belly area, or “diaphragmatic breathing” because it actively uses the diaphragm muscle. This is the way newborns and young children breathe.
The diaphragm moves to let air into the lungs, thus pushing the belly out.
- Start by settling down in a comfortable position.
- Observe your breathing for a moment. Feel the temperature of the air coming through your nose. Feel the movement of your chest and belly.
- Now, as you inhale, feel your abdomen inflate like a balloon.
- Exhale slowly, and feel it deflate as the air comes out of your lungs.
This movement might seem unnatural at first. In that case, it requires a little practice:
Start by putting one or both hands right over your belly button.
Inhale slowly: inflate your belly as a balloon. If needed, you might try to consciously push it down and out with your diaphragm (gently).
Exhale slowly: deflate your belly by pushing your diaphragm up, and using abdominal muscles to tuck the belly in.
You should clearly feel the moment with your hands now. And feel that your chest is moving significantly less than before. Once you’ve achieved this movement, keep doing it for several minutes. Remember to stay focused on the movement and the air flow through the exercise. If you are feeling restless, you might want to try the exercise later.
Once you’ve mastered this movement you might want to try something more to further the relaxation:
Timed Abdominal Breathing
- Keep using the belly movement to breath with your hand on your abdomen.
- Inhale for 4 seconds.
- Exhale for 8 seconds.
Always stay aware of your body and of the movement of the breathing. Breath in and out like this at least ten times. Then take a moment to reflect on how you feel now, after the exercise.
After practicing these exercises for about 5 minutes or more ask yourself the following questions: How does my body feel right now? What tensions are present? Is my body relaxed? What emotions am I experiencing now? What thoughts are coming to my mind?
These questions can be asked before and after the exercise to measure the effect it had on you.
These exercises can be practiced once or several times a day, for about 5 to 15 minutes, to help you unwind and relax. But remember it is always a good idea to start practicing them in quiet moments, and at the same time every day to acquire the technique. Practicing like so will later allow you to use them in more stressful situations and environments and feel the full effect when you most need it.
Troubleshooting: What if this is not working for you?
If after trying these exercises for several minutes you don’t feel more relaxed than before, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t work or that you are doing them wrong. There are 3 possible reasons for that:
– It is not the right moment to start practicing these exercises. If you are new to relaxation or breathing techniques you might want to start practicing them in quiet moments, when you are not particularly stressed or worried about something, and when there are no other people around.
If you feel you are anxious, angry or sad, and feel you are overthinking about something, you might want to wait a few hours or a few days, do another activity, and come back to these exercises when you feel a little calmer.
Once you acquire practice in quiet moments you’ll be able to use these techniques in moments of stress and they will work!
– You need to spend more time practicing breathing movements. Contrary to what we might think, this type of breathing is not a given. Most of us don’t breathe this way naturally, so the movements can seem quite unnatural at first. The effort we make to learn them can hinder our breathing at first and stress us as a result.
But with practice, the mechanical movements associated with this exercise will become more natural and you will be able to completely focus on the self-awareness part of the exercise.
– You need to spend time practicing self-awareness. What if you don’t feel overwhelmed by anxious thoughts or negative emotions and you know the breathing movements? Then the issue might lie in that you are disconnected from your sensations. If your is mounting in stress or descending into relaxation you might not necessarily notice until it has reached an extreme (in which case it will send alert messages you won’t be able to ignore: migraines, pains, panic attacks, illnesses, heart problems etc… to indicate that your body is exhausted).
If you feel this could be the case, you can start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I able to identify right now, the different sensations in different parts of my body and describe them precisely?
- Am I aware (most of the time) of what emotions are present within me and of why I react the way I do at a given moment?
- When I react to a situation, do I know which emotions fuelled that reaction?
- Do I always seem to feel the same emotion in a variety of different situations? (Or the same physical sensation?)
- Am I normally aware of being stressed, anxious, angry or sad for a period of time before my body “shuts down” with a migraine, acute pain or illness?
These questions may help you realize if you are disconnected from your body and your emotions. Practicing self-awareness can be done through Counselling, Sophrology techniques, or through Mindfulness Meditation.
Remember there are always different ways to keep working on your own well-being, so don’t get discouraged.