Deep Breathing Saves the Day
Breathing, we all do it. All. The. Time. Have you ever considered though what’s happening in your body when you intentionally pause to breath slowly and deeply?
If you’re anything like me, the more you understand something and how it works the more likely you’re going to be to implement that something. That was me with deep breathing.
These past couple of weeks have been super crazy at my end. This week was the climax – several dead-lines and really long days. Then, on Tuesday, my stress levels were super high. I felt it in my body the moment I got out of bed. The long list of things-to-do seemed to take effect in my chest and mind and I felt harassed from the get-go.
I usually like to start my mornings with meditation of some sort but on this particular day I figured I just didn’t have the time. By 10am though I realised my mistake. The stress in my chest felt totally uncomfortable now and I had just had a moment whereby I shut my mouth just in time so as to not yell at my son!
Wardrobe to the Rescue!
At that moment I realised what was happening and what I’d done to myself! I did what any sane person would do, I went into my wardrobe and breathed. I’m weird, I know, but that was the one space I quickly thought of where I wouldn’t see anything I needed to do… (till I looked at the t-shirt shelf! Next list job...).
So I closed my eyes, to switch off from everything around me, and I took several slow, deep breaths.
So slow that I actually held my breath in between each exchange. So deep that my belly extended with each inward breath. So intentional that nothing else existed in that present moment. In. Hold. Slowly out. Hold. Repeat.
Then, right there in the middle of our clothes, I felt calm enter my body. It was as if I was exchanging all the stress for the peace and focus, I was desperate for, with each breath.
I envisaged the air bringing calm to every part of my body and slowly my body responded. Initially a distant, faint voice in my mind kept screaming “you don’t have time for this!” but with each breath the voice grew quieter as every part of me relaxed and signed, “I don’t have time to NOT do this!”.
When I emerged from our wardrobe nothing on my things-to-do-list had changed but so much had shifted in my mind and body. The pressure in my chest was gone. The list suddenly seemed possible. I even clearly saw the points that I could delay till the next day. I felt clear. I felt lighter. I felt more alive! All from a few minutes of deep breathing.
So why did this happen? What happened in my body? Did anything change or was I imagining it? Or perhaps it was psychological? Was the improvement only because I stopped for a few moments or was there more to it?
These are some of the questions I went out to discover several years ago. Back then there wasn’t as much scientific research into the benefits for deep, slow breathing but today there is so much more. Medical science is discovering what Eastern cultures have known for millennials, breathing exercises has amazing positive effect on our body as well as our body.
Here are just a few:
Creates a Healthy Balance of Oxygen & Carbon Dioxide
We need a healthy balance of both oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood, too much of either is not a good thing. Unfortunately, when you are stressed or anxious you actually “over-breathe” and take short, shallow breaths. The level of carbon dioxide then becomes too low but there is also not enough oxygen going to our cells even though we’re breathing rapidly.
Improper levels of oxygen or if oxygen isn’t used properly in the body can lead to low moods, depression, low energy, and no motivation (Black et al., 2015). It can also lead to free radicals attacking your system leading to various nasties, including inflammation, cancer, autoimmune conditions, etc.
Slowing down breathing and lengthening the time you take to exhale, will relax the body because it increase the carbon dioxide level. (Russo et al., 2017)
Healthy levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide can improve physical health as well as mental wellbeing. So good.
Increase Focus & Clarity
You might have heard of the “fight, flight or freeze” response. These responses are necessary for us in situations of danger. Our heart-rate rises, our breathing rate increases causing our adrenaline and cortisol to rise (our stress hormones) and we function from the fear and stress part of our brain, the amygdala. (Kirsten Nunez).
By slowing down our breathing we send a signal to the brain telling it “I’m safe, I’m OK” and that in turn, engages our prefrontal cortex to help us focus and make wise, informed decisions again. (Andrea Zaccaro, Andrea Piarulli, Marco Laurino, Erika Garbella, Danilo Menicucci, Bruno Neri, and Angelo Gemignani)
Reduces Blood Pressure
Controlled slow breathing has also been found to decrease blood pressure and heart rate too! (Russo et al., 2017). In fact, breathing exercises are included in a 2013 recommendation made by the American Heart Association as an alternative beyond medicine and diet to controlling blood pressure. Super cool.
Many of us have experienced anxiety – whether you’ve suffered from an anxiety disorder or you’re super anxious for an upcoming nerve-wrecking experience. Many studies have shown that deep breathing is effective to ease anxiety. It has a positive impact on our heart rate and cortisol levels (that stress hormone). Just 10 deep breaths can help with relaxing and provide a sense of calm. (SeanKnurek, Mitchigan University)
If you’re anything like me you’ve had your nights lying in bed desperate for sleep with your thoughts racing a million miles a minute about an upcoming meeting or ultra-busy day ahead. Breathing exercises are a big help in nodding off. Slowing down the breathing and focussing on the breath as it enters you body actually helps the body override the sympathetic nervous system, which controls our fight-flight-or freeze response, and lets the parasympathetic system — which controls our ability to relax — take control instead. (T Pramanik, B Pudasaini, R Prajapati 2010)
When you practice deep breathing while in bed (really slowing each breathe down more and more and also slowing down the pause between each breath) you’re giving the body permission to quit being on high alert and switch instead to being relaxed and calm. (Kissairis Munoz 2017). This is one I use often!
The crazy thing is, this list isn’t exhaustive! There are so many more benefits to deep, slow breathing but I know I’ve share enough for to get you started.
So what are you waiting for? Start today. Tune into your breathing intentionally in those moments today when you could do with a little extra focus, calm and clarity.
Oh, and the best bit? You can do breathing exercises wherever you are – in the car on the way to an interview, in the middle of an argument, before a stressful meeting, or yes, even in your wardrobe! Basically, anytime you want to calm down and gain greater clarity.
It’s time to breathe.