Breathing is life. We breathe even when we are deep in our thoughts and our stories. We don’t have to pay attention to our breathing in order for our bodies to do it. So it may seem a little silly to think about practicing breathing. Surely we already know how to do this!
What we may not know how to do is how to breathe correctly when we’re in a stressful or painful situation.
Perhaps you have that friend who urges you to “Breathe!” or “Take a deep breath” when she can tell you’re becoming upset. Your friend is on to something whether she knows it or not. Physiologically and psychologically, you cannot be highly anxious or angry when you intentionally breathe.
Learning intentional breathing is easy enough. Anyone can learn how.
Why Breathing Calms Your Mind
How you breathe sends messages to your “reptilian brain.” As a species we’ve come a long way since caveman days, but we’ve kept this survival-focused part of our brains. The reptilian brain takes its cues from our breathing to know if we need a flight, fight, freeze, or relax response.
Most of us do not regularly face the immediate, life-threatening dangers of rattlesnakes or lions. As far as our brains are concerned, however, we do. If by rattlesnakes or lions we actually mean hostile employers or unhappy family members.
Your brain makes this association by how we breathe.
- Shallow, fast breathing signals “danger!” to your brain. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol spike. Your brain knows short, shallow breathing often accompanies anxiety.
- Deep, slow breathing signals “all clear, here” to your brain. There is no threat to your safety. You can relax.
Deep, slow breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system which is also known as the “rest and digest” system. Your body releases more soothing neurotransmitters like GABA to carry the message that all is well to the rest of your body. Additionally, you will:
- Decrease your heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones, and emotional reactivity
- Increase GABA, and the amount of oxygen flowing to your brain.
We can quiet intrusive thoughts, and gain influence over our moods, by controlling our breath.
It’s as simple and natural as putting on a sweater when we’re cold.
Four Steps to Breathe Calm Into Your Body
It’s easy enough to breathe calmly when you’re already calm. Stress, however, can make all of our skills and coping strategies fly right out the window.
The reason we practice this new way of breathing is so that we remember to do it even in moments of anger or anxiety. Right when we need it most.
- Breathe consciously, slowly, and deeply.
- Inhale through your nostrils, deeply down into your lungs, so you feel your abdomen press outward onto your lower back. Nasal breathing is deeper than mouth breathing.
- Exhale for longer than you inhale. We call this 1:2 breathing. So if you inhale for 3, exhale for 6.
- Smile before you inhale. Yes, smiling also tells your brain there is no danger 🙂
Pick a time to practice your breathing for a few minutes. You can do this when you walk, make dinner, wake up, or take a shower.
The next time you find yourself in an unpleasant situation, you can immediately restore calm to your body. Just take a deep breath.