The Power of Your Breath
Let’s start with a riddle.
What is free, has life-sustaining powers, and is happening within your body at this very moment (likely without you even being aware of it)?
You guessed it…the breath!
The power of your breath to help regulate your mind and body is ever-present, but it is a tool most of us do not take full advantage of. Whether you are dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or a myriad of other concerns, you can use your breath as a free and easy tool to help yourself heal.
No matter who you are, where you live, or what you’re dealing with today, I can guarantee there is one thing you and I have in common: at this very moment, we are both breathing. In fact, we’ve probably been breathing all day without thinking too much about it.
Our ability to breathe continuously throughout the day without consciously thinking about it is great because, well…it keeps us alive! But the downside is that many of us have developed breathing patterns that are detrimental to our health and we don’t even know it.
This is a broad and important topic, so in this post I’d like to at least skim the surface and review a bit about the basics of the breath, why it’s so important for your physical and mental health, and a few exercises you can use to start taking control of your breath.
Breathing is essential for life. It helps bring oxygen into your bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide. How much do you know about the different phases of your breath and how each impacts your nervous system?
There are 2 main phases of the breath: inhale and exhale.
The inhale activates your sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight system.
The exhale activates your parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is your rest and digest system.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person takes about 20,000 breaths per day! Each of those 20,000 breaths is an opportunity to help regulate your system based on your body and your needs at the moment.
How Does Your Breath Impact Your Health?
The breath is intimately connected to your stress response, and this is where I think the power of the breath lies – as a way to help regulate stress. According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects all systems of the body – everything from our respiratory system to our reproductive system. Our bodies were made to handle small doses of stress, but it starts to take a toll on our bodies when the stress becomes chronic. In today’s world, many people are dealing with chronic stress and need to find approachable ways to relieve some of that tension.
This is where the breath comes in.
Learning how to regulate your breathing can help to activate a relaxation response in the body (the opposite of a stress response) and start to normalize your overloaded nervous system. The simple act of breathing can help to counteract the chronic flight-or-fight state many of us live in.
Tips to Improve Your Breathing
So how can you start to breathe better?
According to the aptly named book Breath by James Nestor, here are a few key things you can do (or stop doing) to better harness the power of your breath.
1. Stop mouth breathing! Chronic mouth breathing (i.e. breathing primarily through your mouth rather than through your nose) is detrimental to your health in many ways. Check in with yourself throughout the day and make sure you’re breathing through your nose, especially during the inhale.
2. Extend your exhale. As I mentioned earlier in the post, the exhale is the part of the breath that activates your rest and digest system. In our modern world that often contains more stress and activity than is ideal, we can utilize the breath to help bring ourselves into a calmer state.
One technique to use is called 4-7-8 breathing.
- Inhale softly for a count of 4.
- Hold for a count of 7.
- Exhale for a count of 8.
- Repeat at least 4 times.
This technique comes from yoga and is touted by Dr. Andrew Weil – check out Dr. Weil’s short YouTube video that demonstrates how to use this method.
3. Resonant Breathing
- Sit up straight and relax the body.
- Inhale softly for 5.5 seconds, trying to breathe into the belly.
- Exhale softly for 5.5 seconds, trying to empty the air out of the belly.
- Repeat at least ten times.
At the very least, start noticing your breath. Take note of your breath when you are stressed – did your breath become fast and shallow? Take note of your breath when you are trying to relax – is your breath still fast and shallow? If so, can you slow each breath down just a little and extend the exhale slightly? How do you feel after doing so? Making even small tweaks to how you breathe can make a big difference in how you feel in your body, and who doesn’t want that?!
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