Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. — Thich Nhat Hanh
How we breathe — deep and long, shallow and short, holding our breath — has significant impact on our well being. Regulated by the autonomic nervous system, breathing ensures that our blood is oxygenated and carbon dioxide is expelled from the body; it ensures energy and survival. Beyond that, the way we breathe also affects our emotional well-being. During times of moderate stress we tend to shallow breathing or even unintentionally holding our breath; this worsens when we experience intensely stressful situations that send our body into “fight or flight” mode.
Fight or flight and the body
Let’s say someone cuts you off on the freeway and you have to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, spilling a cup of coffee or tea all over your lap in the process. You may become visibly angry, shake a fist, utter a few choice words, even begin pursuing the person who just cut you off; or you might feel panicked and anxious, maybe even having to pull over to the side of the road. You body is now in fight or flight mode, an aroused emotional and physical state with changes in blood pressure and hormone levels that can also impair the immune system. In modern life we may experience fight or flight moments several times a day as we try to meet office deadlines or rush to an appointment in heavy traffic, for example.
Breathing exercises can help relieve tension and stress, as well as promote relaxation. Deep belly breathing – filling your lungs fully with air rather than just the top of the lungs – has been shown to reduce tension and anxiety when practiced daily. Following are two links for free downloads of exercises that help with stress management: one is an app for your smartphone, the other has downloadable audio files for itunes or windows media player. It’s belly breathing on the go – now, rather than increasing your anxiety, your phone or computer can be a source of relaxation (just don’t answer any emails or texts during your 5-minute breathing break)!
Free phone apps (iphone and Android) for breathing deeply to relax (includes instructions on bellly breathing, relaxing imagery and guided audio) can be found on the National Telehealth and Technology website
The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free downloadable guided audio files for breathing meditations as well as mindfulness based stress reduction.