Take a Breath
Photographed by Quinn McCaffrey of Kelli Ignat
By Jordyn Damato
It’s a commonly known fact that breathwork is essential to staying calm in high anxiety situations. But, how often are people actually utilizing the true power their lungs possess? It’s crucial to practice breath work and other breathing exercises throughout the day in order to alleviate the nervous system at all times, rather than only in moments of crisis.
Let us start with the science behind breath work first. The sympathetic system is the part of the nervous system that activates the body’s fight, flight or freeze response. It holds the body in a state of strenuous activity, whether that activity is beneficial, like playing a sport, or negative, like feeling anxious in public. The parasympathetic nervous system, which is the network of nerves that calms a person's body following moments of intense stress or danger, is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. In simple terms, the sympathetic system is a state of stress while the parasympathetic system is a state of rest.
For someone with anxiety or anyone dealing with high amounts of stress, these two systems are constantly at a battle with each other, making daily life very difficult and seemingly unmanageable for the struggling person. The parasympathetic nervous system, which alerts the brain that a person is in a safe environment and does not need to engage the fight, flight, or freeze response, can be activated by deep abdominal breathing. Naturally, as a person inhales deeply through their nose and fills their chest with air, their heart and breathing rate will begin to lower, along with their blood pressure. Deep breathing allows more oxygen to reach the brain so a person is able to think clearly, rather than out of fear.
After discussing the “why” of breathwork, it’s equally as important to discuss the “how” of breathwork as well. There are many different breathing exercises out in the world from a variety of cultures that have studied the positive effects of deep breathing for centuries, but an individual who is looking to start using these exercises simply needs to find the few exercises that work best for them. There is no one right breathing exercise for everyone, it’s a process of trial and error and understanding where the anxiety rests in the body and the best way to combat it for each individual. Here is a list of common helpful breathing exercises:
Sit or lay in a relaxing position, whatever feels most comfortable.
Place one hand on the ribcage, one hand over the heart.
Inhale deeply to fill the body up like a balloon; the belly expanding to the chest rising for a full, deep breath in.
Exhale slowly, until all the air is completely out of the lungs.
Repeat three to four times, or as necessary.
By engaging the abdomen specifically with the deep breaths, the full capacity of breath is able to be felt and experienced, stimulating the Vagus nerve and informing both the body and brain to relax.
Inhale for four counts.
Hold the breath for seven counts.
Exhale for eight counts.
Repeat as necessary.
This technique focuses primarily on the “pause” or the holding of the breath, which enforces the technique of “pressing pause” on a busy, running mind. Similarly to the abdominal exercise, the prolonged exhale is to encourage the body and mind to let go of the extra stress it’s carrying and feel renewed.
“Smile inwardly” with the eyes and mouth.
Release shoulder tension; try rolling them.
Imagine holes in the soles of your feet. As you inhale deeply, imagine hot air flowing through the holes, moving up the legs, through the abdomen and filling up your lungs. Relax these muscles as the warm air moves through them.
Hold for as long as comfortable.
As you exhale, reverse the visualization so the hot air flows out of your body and out of your feet.
Repeat as necessary.
This technique is effective for lots of people because of the way it utilizes both breath work and visualization, which helps the brain focus intently on the body, therefore eliminating the stress a person carries in the brain and body.
There are many more breathing techniques out there that focus on different strategies to calm the nervous system, and all are proven to be effective in one way or another, but it’s crucial to keep up with the breathing exercises, not only in a time of crisis.
If the breathing exercises are only being utilized in the moments where the stress or anxiety is at its peak in the body, it makes controlling the negative feelings all the more difficult. Not impossible by any means, but hard to manage. However, if a person practices these calming methods at various points in the day, before the stress has the opportunity to attack at full force, it changes the way the body responds to said stress. Once the body becomes used to the breathing techniques, the body is able to utilize its benefits to its fullest potential. For instance, learning how to breathe abdominally will allow the parasympathetic nerves to reach the brain faster and the body at a deeper, more effective level than casual breathing would allow.
All in all, breathing is important for a variety of reasons as it not only keeps us alive, but more importantly it keeps us living. Breath work is often overlooked because of how easy and mundane of a task it is, but the benefits are too great to be ignored. In today’s high-stress society, it’s time for everyone to start breathing better.