Breathing not only defines life itself, it is also a special gift for a unique reason. It is the only automatic function we can perform both unconsciously and consciously.
Breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system which controls other automatic or involuntary processes like the beating of our hearts or the digestion of food. While we cannot consciously take over our heart rate or digestion, we can take over our breathing process using our voluntary or somatic nervous system (which we use to do things like walking).
We cannot, however, voluntarily stop our breath to the point that we put our lives in danger. We will either give up long before this point because of extreme discomfort or faint, after which the autonomic breathing system will take over and keep us going.
Implications of breath control
What does this voluntary control option mean for us? It means that conscious breathing represents an amazing bridge between our voluntary nervous system and our involuntary or autonomic nervous system. Conscious breath literally gives us a tool to influence a system that is normally completely out of our control.
Breathing gives us an insight into what is happening inside our bodies on a physiological level. This is because our breathing pattern has a direct connection to our emotional states and moods – watch someone who is angry, scared or anxious, and you will see a how their breathing is shallow, rapid, noisy and irregular. Equally, someone who is calm and relaxed will exhibit a breathing pattern that is generally slow, deep, quiet and regular. It is actually impossible to stay upset if your breathing is deep, slow and regular. Try it for yourself.
So the great news is that while we can seldom talk ourselves down from a state of high tension and distress – ‘I must stop being stressed’ or ‘I must calm down’ simply don’t work – we can easily take over our breathing and calm down our emotions directly and rapidly. This is because it is a two-way system. When we become angry, scared or anxious this affects our autonomic nervous system which makes our breathing shallow and rapid, speeds up our heart rate, slows down our digestive processes, and much more. But through conscious deep, slow breathing techniques we can undo these effects by calming our whole system, which in turn calms down our emotions.
As it is a two-way system we can also make ourselves agitated and nervous by adopting a shallow, rapid breathing pattern (hyperventilating) so we need to become constantly aware of our unconscious breathing patterns so that we can learn to manage our emotional states and therefore our thoughts and overall life experience.
Understanding the details
To fully appreciate what a gift our conscious breath is to our health and wellbeing it is important to understand the physiology behind it all. Our autonomic nervous system is basically divided into two different systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
One of the primary processes of the sympathetic nervous system is to control the body’s reaction to stress; preparing it for intense physical activity (often referred to the ‘fight or flight’ response). This includes an increasing the heart rate and blood pressure and slowing of digestive processes so that more blood can get to our muscles. Our breathing rate also speeds up to get more oxygen to the muscles.
The parasympathetic nervous system mostly has the opposite effect effects to the sympathetic nervous system, relaxing the body and conserving energy. It is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response. The breathing rate slows down and deepens. We all know the wonderful sensation of calm and relief that accompanies a deep sigh as all the air is expelled from our lungs. This is the parasympathetic nervous system in full activation.
In summary the sympathetic nervous system can be seen as a rapid-response mobilising system and the parasympathetic as a more slowly activated dampening system.
And one of the best ways to counteract the stress response, especially when it becomes prolonged or out of control and is ruining your life, is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system through slow, deep, regular breathing.
Take action now
Most of us do not know how to breathe properly and maximise the health-promoting properties of conscious deep breathing. Performing simple breathing techniques regularly throughout the day will help to calm stressful emotions, lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve digestive problems, without recourse to drugs.
The simplest breathing technique of all, which can be performed whenever and wherever stress starts to build up – like being stuck in traffic or having a tight deadline at the office – is to take three or four deep breaths where the in-breath count matches the out-breath count. This can be any number from 3-10 as long as it stays consistent throughout the exercise. Find the number that works best for you.
Otherwise, throughout the day, find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down for 5-30 minutes. Inhale slowly through your nose (if your nose is too blocked you can use your mouth), drawing the air deep into your abdomen first and then your chest. Rest a hand in each area to check the air is coming in in the right order.
When you have filled your lungs to capacity, exhale slowly through your nose, emptying your abdomen area first followed by the chest area. Choose a number to count to in order to make sure your inhalation breath match your exhalation breath.
Nugget for the new year
Research confirms that taking control of our breathing can change how we are feeling. So, even if we feel anxious or depressed, if we are prepared to practise breathing like a calm, happy person we can become that person and thereby transform our lives. Positive change is only a couple of breaths away.