Take a moment to breathe in deeply and breathe out fully. Most people don’t pay much attention to this essential component of living. Yet, the breath is perpetually with us, providing information to the brain and the body.
The breath interacts with the autonomic nervous system, which is composed of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system activates the body; it is sometimes referred to as the “fight, flight, freeze” system. When the brain registers danger, whether real or perceived, it sends messages to the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for action: increase heart rate, breathe shallower, etc. Alternatively, when someone is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated; sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. When the brain registers absence of danger, it sends messages to the body to slow down the heart rate, deepen breathing, etc.
Since the breath is a function we can regulate, there is a simple technique that can be used to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and help the brain and body calm down. This can be especially useful if you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed or stressed. The instructions are written below. You may want to read through the text before trying it out or practice as your read.
To begin, it may be helpful to find a quiet and comfortable place to sit or lie down. (However, you can truly practice this anywhere and at any time.) If it feels supportive, you may close your eyes. If not, lower your gaze to the floor a few feet in front of you. Bring your awareness to your breath. Simply notice you’re breathing. Notice where in the body you feel the breath most strongly at this moment: abdomen, chest, nose, etc. After a few normal breaths, begin to influence your breathing by inhaling to the count of two, three or four. As you exhale, do so slowly, for twice as long as you’ve inhaled. For example, if you breathe in to the count of three, you’ll want to breathe out to the count of six. Repeat this cycle for a few minutes. As you get more comfortable with this pattern of breathing, it may become available for you to inhale and exhale for longer counts. When ready, gently, bring your breath to its normal pattern. Breathe here for a few cycles, and when you feel ready, open your eyes or look up.
There is no inhale/exhale length combo that’s better than any other, meaning, as long as you are exhaling for twice as long as you inhale, you’re activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Some people find it quite useful to count along, silently or out loud, as it helps to focus attention. Others find the counting to be distracting. If this is the case for you, feel free not to count, but make sure your exhale is longer and slower than your inhale.
As with many strategies, this is is not fool proof, nor guaranteed to work and feel helpful every time. With consistent practice, however, your brain and body will likely remember to access this calming and restful breathing pattern.
If you notice feelings of worry, stress and overwhelm that are persistent, please contact me to schedule an appointment, firstname.lastname@example.org