By Lidia Snyder, LMSW, RYT-500, TCTSY-F
In these uncertain times, I can confidently be certain of one thing. As you read these words, you are breathing. Whether you find that you’re inhaling or exhaling or even holding your breath - if you take a moment you have the chance to notice you’re breathing. For many of you, it might be the first time today that you acknowledged the fact that you’re breathing. But this simple action supports our bodies in profound ways and as such offers an efficient means of re-calibrating our central nervous system which is increasingly pummeled by stress.
Reports of stress and outreach for mental health care are sky rocketing and the relationship between stress and compromised health outcomes is undeniable. Breathing exercises are commonly recommended for managing stress or anxiety and they deserve elevation for their potential and accessibility: no cost, available to all 24/7. But if entered into too quickly or without adequate preparation, breathing exercises can actually exacerbate anxiety and/or hyperventilation.*
Let’s establish a few facts to begin. Our autonomic nervous system keeps us alive without ever having to think about it. We are continually, unconsciously monitoring our environment and adjusting for optimal functioning. Respiration rates and the pacing of your breath, are impacted by the autonomic nervous system, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches where our responses of “fight to flight” or “rest and digest” are directed. Consider a frightening or exciting encounter - you might find that you hold your breath or can’t seem to catch it because its racing so fast (along with your heart). Our breathing is both affected by and reflective of states from calm or agitation, fear or safety, stress or relaxation.
For many people the most efficient manner of breathing - full diaphragmatic breath - has been replaced by shallow, chest breathing and often through the mouth instead of the nose. As we navigate life, acute stress or chronic stress can hijack our body’s innate ability to operate optimally with a smooth, even diaphragmatic (or belly) breath. Sources as diverse as ancient yogic texts to the American Lung Association extol the virtues of this exact style of breathing. As a yoga and meditation instructor I regularly encounter people who never gave too much thought to their breathing. Many are challenged to breathe through their nose or let their belly move freely as they breathe. And the good news is just like other skills, improved breathing can be learned. And as with most new endeavors, the old adage “slow and steady” applies.
A sensible point of departure is to simply notice and observe one’s breathing so that you can better understand the power of your breath and eventually enlist it as an ally in your stress management plan. You might consider accessing the guided breath practice at the end of the article or follow along with these simple invitations. Try to find a comfortable seat where you feel supported. Some people like to close their eyes while others don’t: your choice. You can rest your hands in your lap or place one on your chest and one on your belly if that works for you. The physical presence of your hands can be useful in feeling movement in your body as you breathe but is certainly not required. Settle into your seat as you consider sticking with this observational practice for 3 - 5 minutes if possible. If you can comfortably observe your breathing for 5 minutes you may want to consider moving beyond observation and toward some breathing exercises, such as those offered through the Wellness Project.
* disclaimer All breathing exercises that change the rate of respiration (and heart rate) may be triggering to some individuals with an unresolved trauma history.