The Importance of Breathing
Breathing is natural right? It is, after all, a fundamental part of living. Therefore, how can anyone be breathing incorrectly? Yet, most people do. One of the first things I work on with all my clients is to look at how they are breathing and the impact that their breathing has on their body and their emotional state.
When we are scared/anxious/angry/stressed, our bodies enter a fight and flight response. This means that our bodies do everything they can to ensure that we are ready to run away from, or fight, whatever danger we are faced. Consequently, our breathing will become short, rapid, and come from high up in our chests, meaning that our bodies are saturated with oxygen allowing us to survive (either by fleeing or engaging) the threat. This is highly adaptive when we are faced with life and death situations (e.g. being attacked by a tiger) but much less adaptive when we’re faced with everyday stresses (e.g. traffic jams, difficult bosses, partner eating the last piece of toast). Whilst we would like to believe that our brains are evolved enough to be able to tell the different between a life and death situation (being attacked by a tiger) and our boss shouting at us, it turns out it’s not.
Let’s take a moment to think about how we react when we’re watching a horror movie in the cinema. When the monster comes on screen, we have a visceral and physiological reaction. We scream. We throw our popcorn in to the air. We jump onto the lap of the person sat next to us. Our heart rate and breathing increase. However, there isn’t anything dangerous in the cinema. The danger is a projection of an image, on to a screen. So, despite being completely safe, our bodies/brains react as though our lives are in danger. Again, this is highly adaptive when we are in life threatening situations as it means we respond extremely quickly, increasing the likelihood that we will survive the encounter. Nevertheless, our bodies/brains simply struggle to tell the difference between an “real” life and death situation and one we “imagine”.
In other words, when we’re faced with low level ongoing stress/anxiety, our bodies learn to always be prepared to run away or fight the danger (we’re animals first and our brains want us to survive!). This can result in our bodies and brains getting stuck in a bio-feedback loop, where are brains tell our bodies that we’re in danger (our breathing becomes rapid and short, resulting in this type of rapid, shallow breathing becoming normalised) leading becoming physiologically aroused and our bodies telling our brains that we are in danger. Consequently, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle where neither our brains nor our bodies feel safe.
Let’s try an exercise. Close your eyes (if you feel safe to do so!) and take a moment to notice any tension in your body. Place one hand on your chest and the other on you diaphragm (lower ribs) and just notice where you are breathing from. Is your top hand moving or your bottom hand? If your upper chest and shoulders are moving up and down, then this is a sign that your body/brain feel under threat. This time, close your eyes and focus on slowly breathing in through your nose, pushing out your bottom hand/stomach, trying to keep your top hand/shoulders as still as possible, then breath slowly out through your mouth. Do this three or four times and then gently draw your attention back to that tension in your body. What does that tension look like now? Hopefully, you’ll have noticed that your body feels a bit more relaxed than it did before that exercise.
Slowing down our breathing and breathing from our stomach/abdomen tells our brains that we are safe and will lower our anxiety/stress levels more quickly than any other strategy. However, breathing alone is never going to reduce our stress from a 10/10 to a 0/10, but it might take it down to an 8/10. Where would you prefer to be? 10/10 or 8/10? For many of us, even being able to temporarily lower our anxiety/stress will be felt as a respite and restorative. When we learn to take control of our breathing, it allows us to disrupt that anxiety cycle and therefore do something different. Consequently, individuals who have experience trauma are suddenly able to talk/think about their experiences without immediately becoming overwhelmed (and allowing them to engage in therapy if they want to).
Whilst slowly are breathing is going to have a significant difference on our wellbeing and mental health, it may only be the starting point for some people. If you feel that you may require further support, or feel that you are now ready to engage in therapy, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my website www.drhdysonpsych.com.