Breathing is one of the most important things that we do. It is vital to life, not just our life, but all life. Everything that is living breathes, and through breath all living things are connected. As we breathe in, we pull in oxygen that plants give off and as we exhale, we release carbon dioxide that plants absorb. We fill up our cells with the oxygen that they need to function and keep our body alive, and we release the waste from the cells. Breathing connects our whole body and it connects us to all life on the planet.
Yet, how much thought do you give to the act of breathing? How much attention are you giving each day, each moment, to your breath? Probably not that much because it is something that is with us from the moment we enter this world and becomes reflexive, a habit that we allow our subconscious mind to control. Such an important part of life that we are taking for granted. Maybe it is time to give it some more thought. It is possible that we are not breathing in a way that best supports our body, both for the health of our cells and for our emotional state.
As mentioned before, the way we breathe is connected to many things, such as every cell and organ in our bodies. Many of us breathe with our chest, taking short and shallow breaths. This does not allow as much oxygen into our lungs, and it can feel to our body as if we are panting, exerting ourselves, which communicates to the body that we are stressed or in distress. Also, when we are very stressed or anxious our chest muscles automatically tighten up so if we breathe with our chest it becomes hard to draw breath and that could lead to panic.
A more effective way to breathe is to use the stomach in what is often called “belly breathing.” This is when we draw breath down into our diaphragm, into our belly and feel our stomach expand as we inhale. Then as we exhale, we feel our stomachs deflate. This is likely the opposite of how you were encouraged to breathe because if you were ever told to pull your stomach in when you inhaled that would make belly breathing impossible. So you may have to retrain yourself to breathe in this new way.
Retraining your Breath
Retraining or changing the way you breathe will take practice and focused, conscious effort in the beginning, but in time it will become your new normal and be so habitual that you will do it without any thought at all just like you are probably breathing now. To practice, take some time to spend just breathing with nothing else to distract you or occupy your attention. You may even want to put a hand on your stomach so that you can feel it expanding and work on moving your hand out when you inhale and feel it move back as you exhale. Doing this daily will help retrain yourself. Also check in with your breath throughout the day and redirect the breath toward the stomach if you find you are using the old method. Do this gently and kindly, remember it is not easy to form new habits. It takes time and becoming upset or frustrated with yourself is not going to help you create a new habit more quickly. It may even have the opposite effect if you become dejected or start to believe it is not possible.
A great way to practice breathing and give yourself self-care time is to practice mindful breathing or meditative breathing. To do this take time to sit calmly, quietly with yourself, and focus on your breath. Don’t do anything else at this time, as you want your entire focus to be on your breath. As you sit quietly, observe your breath, feel it enter your body, feel the breath as it moves through your body, and notice what it feels like as it exits your body. As you take note of all of this, direct the breath toward belly breathing. You will start to be aware of what belly breathing feels like, the sensation against your skin, and how your body feels. Maybe you have never stopped to notice these things before. it is so simple and yet may also be a profound experience to notice and feel these small sensations in your body. Spend time as frequently and as long as you can sitting with your breath. However, start with whatever works for you and then build into a longer, more regular practice. You could start with as little as 30 seconds and try to build up to 20 minutes or more.
Breathing as Distraction
Breathing can also be an excellent form of distraction, soothing, and calming when we are feeling upset, stressed, or overwhelmed. One way to use breathing to calm, sooth, and distract is to count our breaths. This changes the focus of our attention away from whatever was bothering us or creating intense emotions. It brings the focus back to ourselves, to our bodies, and to the act of breathing. You can count the number of breaths, for example count 10 breaths and then start over at one. You can count the length of breath, for example inhale and count to 5, then exhale and count to 5. This will give you time to regulate yourself, think about other ways to cope and respond, while it is helping to move more oxygen into your body.
Square breathing is also very helpful in calming down the system when you are stressed or anxious. This method is a lot like counting breaths, but it has a distinct pattern like a square. With this method, inhale to the count of 4, hold for the count of 4, exhale to the count of 4, and then hold again to the count of 4. The four equal steps of the method, like the 4 equal parts of the square, give it the name square breathing. This method will also help you to calm your emotions, regulate your body, and create a sense of rhythm and routine.
Another breathing technique that can be very useful especially when you are in a high stress, high anxiety state, or in fight or flight is called parasympathetic breathing. This technique has you double your exhalation from your inhalation. So if you breathe in to the count of 4 then you exhale to the count of 8. When you breathe in this way you are communicating to your body that there is no danger present so your muscles will relax and you will come out of fight or flight. This is because it is not possible to breathe in this way if you are running for your life. Your body and brain believing that you are not in mortal danger is important for your system calming down, the intensity of your emotions to decrease, and being able to solve whatever the problem is with a calmer, clearer head.
Spend some time observing your breath, become familiar with how you breathe right now. Once you become acquainted with the way you breathe and how it feels, begin to try some of the different breathing styles to see how each of them feel to you. When you find one that you like, try to practice it regularly so that you are comfortable with it and it is readily available for you to use in times of stress or strong emotions to help you to move through the moment and return to a state of peace and calm.