Breath. Stating the obvious, it is essential for life…
Yet so many of us remain completely unaware of how connected our mind, body and breath are, and how you can impact your own physiology by connecting to, and consciously influencing, your breathing.
From the moment we are born until when we die it is estimated we take over half a billion breaths – imagine taking this automatic process into an awareness state and being able to powerfully and positively change your body chemistry!
Mental and emotional stress can often cause you to begin unconsciously breathing quite shallowly and quickly as your body - specifically your sympathetic nervous system, or 'SNS' - puts you into a ‘flight or fight’ response to get you away from a perceived threat. This metabolic ‘high alert’ state occurs when cortisol and adrenalin hormone levels spike – and if your feelings of stress, excitement, aggression, helplessness or anxiety don’t abate then the response can persist for longer than is required (or in some cases never even really shutting off at all), creating a cascade of damaging and inflammatory cellular complications.
Our ‘flight or fight’ response was cleverly designed by our bodies to thrive and survive, back in our hunter and gatherer days. Back then, immediate stressors came and went – there were not the same mental burdens that we notice in our lifestyles today. We can’t just run away from work, or kids or partner, mounting debt or any situation our bodies are recognising as a ‘threat’. We used to run away from lions trying to eat us, or we’d be running to catch our next meal. Now what we are dealing with is just life, and our bodies can’t tell the difference. Sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs can also produce the same fight or flight chemistry. This is why long term stress is such a modern day issue!
Chronic stress manages to completely deplete us by interfering with each of our 11 major body systems, including endocrine, digestive, nervous, lymphatic and musculoskeletal. Intrinsic healing can’t take place when survival hormones are running unchecked, causing us to suffer from a myriad of diseases or disorders that include insomnia, fatigue, poor immunity, lack of motivation and depression, muscle tension and pain, insulin sensitivity, digestion issues, weight gain and adrenal exhaustion - all disorders related to an overworked SNS.
The biochemical pathways of healing, resting and digesting have always been just as critical for our survival too, especially our long term survival, yet our bodies don’t really have the same mechanism for a spurt of relaxation as it does for giving us a spurt of urgency! So what can we do to counteract the constant signalling from our overwhelmed stress response?
We need to connect with our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and encourage it to override the stress signals from the SNS.
PNS is the calming metabolic counterbalance that helps our body rejuvenate, replenish and recalibrate, and is often referred to as our ‘rest and digest’ nervous system as it promotes healing, building of tissues, and eliminating wastes.
Your breath is actually the fastest medium through which your two opposing nervous system pathways can communicate and reset. Your breath acts as a ‘mediator’ between them, helping to flick the ‘high alert’ switch to low in a matter of seconds or minutes. Deep, regular and steady breathing immediately lowers your sense of stress, lifts your mood, lowers your blood pressure, as well as strengthening your immune system by engaging lymphatic flow circulation.
Our lymphatic system can be likened to our body’s specialised sewer system.
Think of your lymph vessels as forming a complex vital drainage system that travels throughout your entire body. This system helps filter waste products and toxins, fights off pathogens and maintains your all-important fluid balance, thus allowing your body to function to the best of its abilities! If you’re sitting for long periods at a time, if you tend to breath fast and shallow, or if you’re quite often a little under the weather then there’s a high probability that you have a sluggish lymphatic system that is just not able to detoxify properly. The expansion and contraction of the diaphragm during deep breathing stimulates your lymphatic system and massages your internal organs and will motivate and galvanise your body to be more ‘well’.
There are many, and often ancient, methods that are taught all over the world to trigger the actions of the PNS. Here are a few of the most common “quickies” for relaxing and taking some control over your inner mental and biological landscape, without having to attend a meditation or yoga lesson.
Take at least 5minutes and;
- Take a seated position with hands comfortably in your lap, or one hand one your chest the other on your lower belly
- Keep the tip of your tongue gently touching the roof of your mouth, nestled behind your front teeth
- Allow the shoulders to shrug up slightly then draw back ever so gently to open up your lungs
- Keep your spine long, sit tall, almost as if someone is pulling the top of your hair a little
- Relax your eyes, either keeping them closed or softly focused in a downwards position
- Breathe deep into your belly/lower abdomen and exhale fully, without straining
- Inhale and exhale only through your nostrils… this can feel a little awkward or ‘blocked’ at first. Please persist! You will get better over time. If medical reasons make this impossible, please do inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth
- Build up to exhaling a little more than you inhale; so if you inhale for 4 seconds, take five seconds to exhale
- Let the breath flow naturally, simply keeping track of how it feels. It will make it an easier and more joyful process if you can learn to savour it, making breathing an exquisite sensation you want to prolong. Your breath is the bridge between your mind and body, so please enjoy learning to cross that bridge again!
- If your mind wanders off, simply bring it back. If it wanders 100 times, bring it back 100 times, never be discouraged by your thoughts. Simply acknowledge them, let them go and return to noticing your breath. I choose to concentrate on the feeling of the air entering and leaving right at the tip of my nostrils
- You may have enough time to ‘work’ your breath from your feet to your head. Close your eyes and focus on ‘breathing into’ and relaxing each muscle group for two to three seconds each. Start with the feet and toes, then move up to the calves, knees, thighs, bottom, chest, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw and eyes — all while maintaining deep, slow breaths.
Quiet. Composed. You may even feel lethargic as your body switches into repair mode. Breathing is the way to connect to our inner soul compass, it is how we can be mindful and present. These are two terms we often hear, and really what they are referring to is breath.
It is good to remember that whilst stress, anxiety, frustration and other daily setbacks will always be there, the best news is that so too will our breath! It is always with us, so let’s choose to work with it and harness its innate power. If stress mode has become your ‘normal’ way of being, then it may be time to make a conscious effort to slow down, reset and heal by practicing deeper breathing. The chemistry of serenity is easily thwarted by the onset of adrenalin and cortisol, simply because we are programmed to involuntarily react, not necessarily think, for our survival. Choose your breath to help redirect these involuntary nervous system pathways and reap the benefits!
This is a great short video by Dr. Mandell shows you how to breathe correctly:
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This article was written by Pia Kynoch,
Owner & Principal Therapist at:
Verve Beauty & Paramedical Skin Wellness.