We often only breathe shallowly into our lungs. By breathing into only the top half of our lungs, we send the body into fight, flight or freeze. Fight, flight or freeze are responses that the body goes into when it experiences a threat – for example, back in the day when we would encounter an angry, voracious bear.
When our life is threatened, the body immediately determines whether it needs to freeze, acting as if it is not a threat to the source of danger, fight whoever or whatever is causing a threat, for the sake of survival, or run like the wind to flee from the menace. This state of constant alertness requires an excessive amount of the body and mind’s resources that could be utilized for other necessary functions.
When I was in my Master’s program studying Holistic Health Education, one of the required books to read was Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky. This is one of many books that highlights the differences between our human stress response and the stress response of animals. Animals might encounter a stressor and go into that fight, flight or freeze reflex: respond to the threat by staying still, running or showing its strength to reciprocate the threat. When there is no longer a threat, the animal returns to its calm state of being… Threat over, back to the norm. (Of course there are always exceptions to this.)
We humans tend to hold on to the concern of that potential threat. The body’s response to a perceived danger – the high blood pressure or pounding heart or the shallow breathing or being incredibly still in preparation for escape or launching into attack or a protective state of guarding – may stay with us for hours, days, months or even years! And as a human, our thinking mind and our emotional evaluation of the perceived threat could possibly supersede our primal response; if we were threatened once, our perception can make even safe territory feel like a threat. That gets into a much deeper topic though. Thus, I’ll leave that and move forward to share how breathing deep into the lungs can ease our stress response.
Take a moment right now and – without changing a thing – notice your breathing as it is.
- Are you breathing shallowly?
- Is your mind so loud with incessant thoughts that it’s difficult to notice your breathing?
- Do you feel a sense of heaviness in your chest?
- Or are you breathing into the depths of your lungs?
Now, place a hand on your chest and a hand on your belly. Notice if the hand on your chest moves but the other hand doesn’t. Take a deep inhale, filling the lungs, taking in as much air as you can. Notice the hand on your chest and the hand on your belly both move forward. Exhale out every last drop of air and notice your hands soften back toward the spine. That is a full breath.
We benefit most when we are taking full breaths. There’s no need to put effort into it, just awareness. And it’s unnecessary to hold your breath at the inhale or the exhale or pause between breaths. You want the breath to flow.
Imagine a figure 8 – blending the inhale into the exhale and blending the exhale into the inhale – smooth, easy flow.
When you breathe this way, you’re sending a message to the body that everything is okay, that there is nothing in the immediate environment that is a threat. Taking big full deep breaths in and out circulates oxygen and blood through the body. Often when the blood and oxygen are limited in circulating through the entire body, the body needs to prioritize, doing its absolute best to bring these life-essential elements to the primary body parts, for example to the brain and the heart and other vital organs. Breathing deeply makes it so the body doesn’t need to prioritize.
Full breaths also free up the attention, allowing the mind to calm and focus in. Aligning the mind with the most moment-to-moment, tangible body function – breathing – is one of the features of meditation. Uh-oh, I said it… meditation. Some of us might dread the thought of meditating.
The word ‘meditation’ can have very heavy connotations. But you don’t need to be at an ashram in India or at the peak of some prestigious, iconic mountaintop to experience and utilize the benefits of meditation. The word ‘meditation’ has several meanings and there are various types of meditation. Merely take a moment to focus on your breathing. String together a few of these moments to focus on your breathing and viola, you are ‘meditating’.
Let’s get back to the physiological benefits of deep breathing… When your body is not in fight, flight or freeze, it has energy to focus on more than the vital necessities. You may be more easily able to express a coherent thought or complete a sentence. By creating the habit of checking in with your breathing, you come to the present moment. You may be able to remember where your keys are. We aren’t in the present moment when we put our keys in the freezer or we set them down as we buzz through the door and then can’t recall where we put them. Taking a moment to bring our attention to our breathing helps us to align with our physical self, reconnecting with this body that is our companion throughout our journey on this planet. Our body is here for us in thick or thin, illness and health, from conception to death. This physical form that we put to use throughout this life deserves our attention.
I highly recommend applying this elongated breathing technique as a dedicated practice for a few weeks, especially if you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or dealing with anxiety. Make this awareness of your breath easy, especially if this is new to you: create a reminder, maybe a sticky note on your bathroom mirror or dashboard or put an image that reminds you to take a few deep breaths up on your phone or computer’s screen saver. This reminder will be a stimulus to encourage you to consciously take a few deep breaths during your day. Note the difference it makes. With consistent practice of this new skill, you will soon have a new habit that greatly benefits body, mind and self.
Please feel free to reach out – as a Certified Life Coach, in a phone session, I can guide you toward reducing your stress and to creating beneficial new habits and awarenesses that bring you a sense of calm and empowerment.
Note: some of us aren’t yet belly breathers. I certainly wasn’t when I first heard of belly breathing. Our society has put pressure on us to make the abs taught, to hold the belly in. But belly breathing can become second nature with time and with awareness. Keep practicing. The truth is that as long as you are inhaling to the depth of the lungs without strain or effort, you’ll be benefiting the body.
Here are more great books that show you how to undo the body’s response to perceived threats: