The breeze is like the earth’s breath. Sometimes it is quite shallow, as it was the other day at the beach, and sometimes it is intense, as it is during storms. It got me thinking about how most of us only breathe shallowly and without intention. In fact, most of us give little to no thought to our breathing techniques.
Yes, breathing is an involuntary action. But our breath can do wonders for our mental and physical health when we take over the controls and make breathing voluntary and intentional.
Breathing and Your Fight or Flight Response
Controlled breathing, sometimes also called simply “deep breathing,” has been a stapled feature of Eastern health practices for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the concept became known and practiced in the West. It took breathing techniques a lot of scientific proof before western folks caught on!
While the practice is very simple (inhale slowly and deeply through nose for a count of 5, hold for a 3 seconds, exhale through mouth for a count of 5), the results can be profound.
When we practice conscious breathing, we trigger our parasympathetic nervous system to come online and counter our sympathetic nervous system’s fight our flight response to daily stress. This is incredible, because our fight or flight response, over time, can make us very very sick.
The following are just some of the ways intentional breathing can benefit your health and well-being. And keep reading until the end because the last one is the one I am most excited about!
Human beings are hardwired to be on high alert for any signs of danger in our environment. It’s how our ancestors stayed alive. It’s the fight or flight response I mentioned.
But back in ancient times, stresses were short-lived. You were out gathering berries in the woods, you spotted a big, hungry bear, your fight or flight response kicked in, your body went into automatic pilot to get you out of that dangerous situation (hormones released, heart rate and blood pressure increase) and you ran like hell to safety.
Modern stress isn’t so short-lived. Mounting debt, long commutes, horrible bosses, toxic relationships, and lack of quality sleep seem to plague many people. This causes our bodies to be in a CONSTANT state of fight or flight. Which means stress hormones are constantly secreted into our bloodstream and our hearts and constantly beating rapidly.
Controlled, intentional breathing is, quite possibly, one of the most effective and powerful tools you can use to take your brain out of high alert and put it into a relaxation response.
Controlled breathing triggers the stimulation of the vagus nerve, which is a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen. This nerve is responsible for lowering heartrate, as well as signaling the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that initiates increased focus and calmness.
Acetylcholine is also able to decrease feelings of anxiety. Some studies have also suggested that stimulating the vagus nerve may also help those with depression who have not responded to anti-depressant medications.
Lowering Blood Pressure
Research suggests that when practiced consistently, controlled, intentional breathing will result in lower blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn results in less wear and tear on your blood vessels. Overtime this practice can help individuals prevent stroke and heart attack.
Grow Your Brain
Some of the coolest research of late has shown that when controlled breathing is used as part of a meditation practice, the result can be an actual increase in the size of the brain. But more specifically, the areas that seem to grow are the ones associated with attention and processing of sensory input.
Changing Gene Expression
OK, this is the benefit I am most excited about! Research has now discovered that controlled breathing can alter the expression of genes involved in immune function, energy metabolism and insulin secretion. What if intentional breathing is the key to preventing and even reversing disease?
The bottom line is, our lives are constantly filled with stressors. And there’s not much we can do to avoid them. But we CAN manage how we deal with stress so that we don’t develop disease. And one of the simplest, most enjoyable and most effective ways of combatting stress is controlled, intentional breathing.
Take a moment to do some controlled breathing
Before I leave you I want you to do me a favor. I want you to close your eyes and picture something that makes you calm and happy. Maybe you’re at the ocean or by a lake listening to the gentle waves lapping the shore. Now, while visualizing and feeling this peace, take three deep slow breaths in through your nose for a count of one… two… three… four… five. Hold… one… two…three…and exhale through your mouth for a count of one… two… three… four… five…
Repeat these two more times inhale 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
Exhale 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
One more time inhale 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
Exhale 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
How do you feel? You’ll likely feel calm and relaxed and GOOD! And you only did that exercise for a few seconds! Imagine if you made a habit of this and practiced for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. How could it change your quality of life and health?
I also encourage you to look into HeartMath to really dive deeper into how breathing techniques can enhance heart/brain coherence.
Wishing you peace and calm in the days ahead.
Hang in there and breathe.