Why do we breathe? To stay alive. As simple as that. We need it to function and our marvellous body not only survives and thrives on it, but it is affected by it differently. Inhaling and exhaling air is something most of the time we take for granted. Something that we value very much, once we have been under water a little to long. It is something we value when we finally walk into nature and experience that fresh air.
Do you know that situation in which you feel tense, nervous, and just plainly stressed out? We all experience these situations and some of us more than others. Maybe you have noticed that these moments don’t allow you to think very clearly and actually narrow your mind. It is then that your fight-flight-freeze response is activated and you are ready for action. But is that necessary all the time?
Animals that are prey for predators only activate this tense response when they feel threatened. It is something typical of humans to experience this nervousness because we think or believe that we are threatened and we worry or stress about it. You can feel and experience the same sensations when you are being chased by a lion, as when you imagine being chased by a lion.
“Breath is the finest gift of nature. Be grateful for this wonderful gift.”
– Amit Ray
Our body contains multiple systems that keep us alive and working. One of them is the autonomic nervous system that is a control system. It works mostly without us being aware of it, automatic, and regulates functions such as our heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, etc. This system can be divided into two separate systems, namely the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. They have opposite actions.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response. This system functions in quick responses. It decreases the energy provided to our organs, so you will not digest your food as good as you would in a relaxed state. And it sends a lot of the energy in your body to your muscles. This is a good thing, because if you are being chased by a lion, you need all your energy in your muscles to try and run away, or fight it if you dare.
Imaging feeling stressed all the time. This is somewhat similar to having your sympathetic nervous system activated. As if you are living in a constant fight-flight-freeze response. Luckily we have the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our resting state. It functions by relaxing our body and allowing for our organs to function properly.
The two systems function oppositely from one and other. This means that they cannot be activated at the same time. They can, however, switch between which is activated and which is not. The beautiful thing about it is that our breathing has a huge control over this. Every time we inhale, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, and every time we exhale our parasympathetic nervous system is activated, deactivating the other one.
When we exhale we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, hence, we relax. When we inhale we activate our sympathetic nervous system, meaning we prepare ourselves to get ready for action. This is why in many meditation exercises, they focus on the exhale part, relaxing our muscles and getting into a calm state.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
– Tich Nhat Hanh
Stress works in different manners, and a impactful one is by thinking about fear or uncertainty that makes us feel threatened. Now if you have understood my small and (to) little explanation of how our two autonomic systems work, you have noticed that when we exhale we calm our body. Our breathing has an amazing impact on how we feel physically and mentally. Luckily there are many breathing exercises that require very little time and are easy to do. You just need to do them.
Down below I will explain a couple of exercises that I like, but there are many more. I challenge you to try them out once you have read them!
- The 7/11: This one is very easy to do. You inhale for seven seconds and exhale for eleven seconds. (notice how the exhale is longer, triggering your parasympathetic nervous system to calm you down).
- Breathe 1 time in 30 seconds: Go through the cycle of inhaling, exhaling and holding once in 30 seconds or twice in 60 seconds. It is easier than it looks and it will help you focus on your breathing and control your breathing. Instead of small shallow breaths that make you ready for action (just think of your breathing during exercise) this slow and deep breathing helps you to calm down.
- The 4/7/8: Inhale for four seconds, exhale for seven seconds, hold for eight seconds and start again. This one is a bit tougher, but once you can control your breathing it will feel amazing. Once again it is focused on the exhaling of your breath.
I am curious to know how you have experienced these exercises and if you know any of your own!
If you have experienced this text to be helpful and insightful, please share it with others. Let us spread love and awareness together. Let me know what you think of this post in the comments below or send me an e-mail. I encourage you to share your experience or thoughts!