The previous article discussed the power of the breath to relax us. This article will expand on that discussion and provide some breathing techniques to help anxiety.
If you’re a person who sometimes (or often) gets caught on the seemingly inescapable tramlines of anxiety, then this article is for you. Even if you’re an ordinarily calm person, this article could also be valuable to you. My aim is to show you that you have a supreme power to control your mental and emotional states.
And it all stems from your breath.
More On The Breath
Please read the previous article if you haven’t already. This will ensure you get the most out of this one.
The breath is an activity essential for life. It feeds precious oxygen to every cell in our body and removes toxic carbon dioxide from our system. The quality of our breathing influences every aspect of our lives. It is not an understatement to write that the quality of our life almost fully depends on the quality of our breath.
Every breath we take and how we take it influences our mental, emotional and physical state. When our breathing is shallow and fast we become excited and alert; when our breathing is deep and slow, we become relaxed and serene.
Our breath and our inner state evolved to complement each other. Each is so dependent on the other that they might as well be the same thing.
In the past, when our species faced dangers on a regular basis, being able to breathe quickly and shallowly while simultaneously engaging our alarm system was beneficial to our survival.
The issue we are facing today is that most of the dangers we face are no longer physical in nature (lions, tigers and bears), they are psychological (stress, social anxiety, overstimulation). But the same mechanisms which kept us alive in the past are still running in the background of our lives. Our breath still influences our inner state, whether we’re aware of it or not.
It does this through the autonomic nervous system
What Is The Autonomic Nervous System?
It is the nervous system in charge of all the unconscious activities which are necessary for us to live:
- Heart rate
- Pupillary response
- Sexual arousal
- Respiratory rate
All of these processes fall under the management on the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system itself is regulated by reflexes through the brain stem to the spinal cord and organs. The brain stem is the most ancient part of our brain, it’s function is to keep us alive.
The observant reader will have noticed that in the list of all the unconscious activities I listed in the previous paragraph there is one which doesn’t quite fit. Can you see which one it is?
It’s respiratory rate.
We can’t consciously control our digestion, heart rate, pupillary response, etc. But we can consciously control our respiratory rate. We can control how deeply or how shallowly we breathe, how quickly or how slowly.
This means that the breath is a bridge between our conscious choice and our unconscious physiological processes. Through the breath we can influence the physiological systems which determine whether we’re aroused or relaxed.
That’s what makes the breath our most powerful tool in the management of our internal states.
The Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System
I will do my best to keep things simple and clear here. Bear in mind, this is a superficial overview of how these systems work together; it’s meant to intrigue you. If you want to dive deep, you will have to do your own research.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our arousal, our fight-or-flight response.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our relaxation, our rest-and-digest response.
When we are in a stressful situation and sympathetic nervous system activates our fight-or-flight response, it’s the parasympathetic nervous system’s job to return us to a state of rest-and-digest.
And this is super interesting.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are in constant balance. We can only be in one state or another, we can’t be in both at the same time. It’s like our internal state is a see-saw. We are healthiest when we are capable of balancing the see-saw right at the edge of one state or another.
Because it means we are able to adequately respond to any change in our environment.
If we’re resting and digesting when suddenly we need to run for our lives it would be best for the sympathetic nervous system to active as quickly as possible. If our balance favors the parasympathetic nervous system too much, too often, we might not be able to respond as quickly as we need to in order to survive.
So an optimum balance between both systems is a sign of good health.
And there’s more: when we inhale we activate the sympathetic nervous system; when we exhale we activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
This means that the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems can be shifted using our breath!
In our internal state is a see-saw, the center support is the breath. Depending on how we breathe we can shift that center support to favor one side of the see-saw or another!
We can regulate our autonomic nervous system, which is unconscious, through our conscious breath. That is a superpower. And I’ll tell you why.
The Benefits Of Conscious Breathing
Imagine you’re in a stressful situation. Maybe you’re about to ask your boss for a raise. Or you’re about to ask a beautiful woman or man out on a date. Or you’re getting into an argument with someone.
These situations activate the sympathetic nervous system just as if we were running from a predator. The only difference is in the degree of activation. Running from a predator is more stressful than asking your boss for a raise, but they’re both stressful situations.
So you’re asking your boss for a raise; you feel your heart rate increase, your palms get sweaty, your breathing quickens and you feel your emotions start to simmer at the surface. If you’re human you’ve felt this before.
You have two options:
- Continue with the plan of asking your boss for the raise, without changing anything.
- Take a few seconds to breathe consciously and then proceed to ask your boss for the raise.
Choosing one option increases the likelihood of you walking out of your boss’ office with a raise. Do you know which one?
If you guessed option 2 you are correct.
Breathing consciously when we are in, or about to be in, a stressful situation activates our parasympathetic nervous system. It edges us into a more relaxed state; it slows down our heart rate and it cools our emotions.
People who are calm in stressful situations give off a vibe of confidence. This is why breathing consciously before asking your boss for a raise would increase the likelihood of you getting it. As well as increase the chances of getting a date with someone you’re attracted to or getting your way in an argument.
How I Use Conscious Breathing
I get into many discussions with people which can sometimes become heated. I hang out with passionate people. In order to keep my cool throughout the discussion I focus on my breathing. Sometimes I just feel myself breathing, other times I actively lengthen and deepen it. It depends on how I feel.
I do the same thing when I’m talking to a new person whom I don’t know. It helps relax me so that I can present myself as genuinely as I want, rather than losing myself in nervousness.
This is important because when we’re relaxed we are creative and funny. The more relaxed we are when meeting people the more others enjoy being around us. It’s unnecessary to change ourselves in order to impress others. All we have to do is be ourselves. And conscious breathing helps us do just that. It allows us to get out of our own way.
Three Conscious Breathing Techniques
Whenever I want to relax a little I just focus on my breath. Here are a few breathing techniques to help anxiety. Doing each of these for just a minute is enough to bring us to a state of relaxation:
- Conscious breathing – simply watch your breath. Don’t do anything to change it. Feel your belly rise as you inhale and lower as you exhale. Feel your breath move through your body, you can feel from the tip of your nose to the pit of your belly. Whatever you like best. I enjoy focusing on my nose, my heart and my belly.
- Four-eight breathing – Breathe in for four seconds and exhale for eight. It’s important to not inhale or exhale excessively. Do it naturally, but follow the 1 to 2 ratio of inhale to exhale. This exercise takes a more of a conscious control to do than the previous one, but it has the potential to relax you more once you get good at it. Because the exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, so by favoring the exhale you are favoring the rest-and-digest mode.
- Ocean breath – Do the same as with four-eight breathing but exhale through your mouth while making an “Ha” sound. The “Ha” sound is soothing and further enhances the relaxation response of slow breathing.
Of these three breathing techniques, the first one, conscious breathing, is my favorite. It’s the simplest and I can do it anytime I want, even when I’m speaking with someone. I do not recommend doing four-eight breathing or the ocean breath while interacting with other people.
Your Breath, Your Power
I hope you found this article informative. The breath is truly unrivaled in its power to influence our internal states. If you’ve never been conscious of how your breath influences your internal state you might have difficulty noticing its calming (or exciting) effects when you first start working with your breath. Sadly, this is a result of human beings losing touch with their body. But it’s reversible.
Consciously working with our breath over time develops our sensitivity to its power. Remember, neurons that fire together wire together. The more we do something the better we get at doing it. If you persist with conscious breathing you will eventually notice how your breath you influences how you feel.
Knowing that we can influence our internal state just by breathing is empowering like nothing else. It allows us to make better choices for ourselves when we are faced with challenging situations. And that’s the whole reason I made this website, to teach people how to empower themselves.
So I invite you to breathe consciously!
Are you planning on implementing anything of what you learned in this article? Let me know in the comment section below!
To our wealth and success.