May 21st, 2012
I have no idea when it started and for the longest time, I was unaware that I even did it until I was given the solution by an incredible art therapist. “Breathe. Just breathe. Your only job in this moment is to breathe!”
When I get nervous, I forget to breathe. I hold my breath and tighten my tummy. My entire body clenches. My limbs do a tap dance as I bite my lip and become flushed. This can provoke my heart to palpitate and my palms to sweat…
Most of us have experienced this “fight or flight” response, where the mind and body prepare to adapt to potential stress. This protective response radiates the genius of our nervous system at work, protecting us from danger! Of course, when you are in the middle of it, it can feel rather uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, I seem to have a highly sensitive and active nervous system. I manage an incredible amount of anxiety on a daily basis. I am learning to work with this as part of my nature by accepting that this is how my biology works. With that being said, I am also learning how to bring my mind and body back to a state of balance using this biology to my advantage.
A simple, effective practice…
During the last blog, “Where ever you go, there you are,” I promised to introduce you to a recovery skill that also always travels with you everywhere you go…
Sit down and brace yourself, for this may sound ridiculously oversimplified. The most profound coping skill I have discovered on this recovery journey is breathing. When I practice breath work, stress dissipates as reliably as ice melts at room temperature. In fact, I have never found anything to work with such consistency and simplicity, at least in the moment I am practicing.
Accept the possibility…
Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, please hear my plea.
“Breathe. Just breathe. Your only job in this moment is to breathe!”
When I first heard these words, I actually had mixed feelings. On one hand, I wanted this idea to be true. It gives permission to place all of life’s pressures, peoples’ expectations, and personal responsibilities on the back burner, at least for a moment. When the stress trigger is pulled, all I have to do in any one moment is breathe? Really?
On the other hand, I could not fathom that this would really help. How could something so natural and simple work? Eating disorders and the underlying web of contributing factors are incredibly COMPLEX. Those pressures, expectations, and responsibilities are not going anywhere, either. I am still going to have to face them, right?
Although I was too stubborn and suspicious to implement the practice the art therapist taught me, intuitively, I knew she was on to something. Hence, those words began to spring to mind during tough times, rather relentlessly.
At some point, I at least accepted the possibility that this breathing thing might help. While I had not yet embodied the practice of attending to my breath, I began telling myself in some moments of fear, panic, and sadness, “I am OK right now. I’m alive. I am still breathing.”
Fast forward several years. After hitting a plateau in talk therapy and hoping for a reprieve from severely impairing anxiety, I began taking private yoga sessions. Yoga was the only place where I felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked forward to that one hour a week, where I could be in my body with calmness and clear my mind enough to make space for a little bit of hope. Every class began and ended with a focus on breath work. This allowed me to step away from “thinking” and “intellectualizing” the practice by immersing myself within it, physically. I had that ah-ha moment, “This is what she was talking about! Right now, my only job is to breathe!”
Breath work is a recovery resource that is always accessible no matter where you are! It is paying attention and learning to control the breath. In yoga, we call this practice, pranayama. It is considered such an important life practice that it makes up one of the eight limbs of yoga.
If you are willing to take my word for it, please feel free to skip over the following explanation of HOW it works, and just allow yourself to EXPERIENCE it. Otherwise, perhaps a little fact sharing will entice you to practice the exercise at the end of this blog.
Regulating the Body…
Breathing is one of the few bodily functions controlled both unconsciously and consciously. If you do not consciously breathe, eventually nerve impulses will travel to the diaphragm and stimulate respiration. Perhaps this explains why most of us go through life with so little awareness of our breath. We do not really have to pay attention to it. However, when we do, there are genuine physiological payoffs!
The nervous system is incredibly complex, so we’re just going to examine the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its relevance to the breath. The ANS regulates smooth muscles, the cardiac muscle, glandular effects, and – respiration!
When out of balance, the ANS regulates through stimulating either the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). Think of the SNS as an accelerator (fight or flight) and the PSNS as the brake (rest and digest)!
Have you ever felt completely stressed out, as in stressed to the core? The pupils dilate, the heart accelerates, and the digestive system slows. The SNS releases hormones and neurotransmitters that activate the fight or flight response, again, to protect us from pending danger. Unfortunately, chronic stress can make for a very touchy accelerator, and in my case, a very shaky body!
Luckily, there is a way to trigger the PSNS response in order to bring the mind and body back to balance. I wish I had not gone so long without knowledge of how to use my breath as a buffer against stress and anxiety. Practicing conscious control of the breath is one of the quickest and most effective methods of self-regulating. Deep, relaxed breathing circulates a nourishing supply of oxygen throughout the entire body. This allows your blood pressure and heart rate to drop, digestion to resume, and adrenal glands to balance hormone levels, together relieving tension and evoking a state of relaxation.
The next time you feel stressed ask yourself, “Do I need my accelerator or my brake?”
When you need a break…
It is very difficult to put into words the healing power of attending to your breath…so just try it. We could offer an entire series of blogs for various breathing practices, but here is a simple practice to begin.
- Find a comfortable seated position, whether sitting in a chair or taking easy pose on the floor.
- Allow the heart to lift and shoulders relax as you sit tall and lengthen the spine.
- Without making effort to change anything, just begin to pay attention to your inhale and exhale, noticing the subtle movements that occur within the body with the rise and fall of the breath.
- Now, begin breathing in and out of the nose. Maybe you can feel the air entering with a crisp coolness and existing with moist warmth.
Breathing in and out of the nose is not typical for most of us. If this is a challenge for you, be kind and patient. Just note this is a new pattern. Continue to practice until you can do this with ease.
- Next, bring your awareness to your belly. Allow the belly to soften and expand on the inhale and the navel to draw toward the spine on the exhale. If you prefer a visual, you can imagine that the belly is a balloon inflating on the inhale and deflating on the exhale.
- Note the rhythm of the breath as you inhale and exhale. As you settle into the rhythm of your breath, you may find comfort in slowly extending the length of the breath.
- You may enjoy practicing equal inhale and exhale. Counting the length of the inhale and exhale is great way to begin tracking the pace of the breath.
- Repeat silently to yourself, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.”
- The ONLY way this works is by DOING it! Sometimes, it just takes one minute of effort before noticing the calming effects.
This practice will not make your life perfect or even promise a stress-free future. However, it will allow you to slow down, regroup, and face the moment ahead with more clarity and calmness.
I hope you allow yourself to experience the profound healing effects of your breath. It just takes practice. You do not have to reinvent the wheel for this one. If you watch a newborn baby or relaxed animal breathe, you will notice their belly rise and fall with their breath. It is our nature. Do not get in the way of your own healing nature!
Just settle into your breath, where ever you are! emBODY it. enJOY it!
Breathe deeply & repeat!
Heather Purdin, M.Ed., RYT