“Take a deep breath and enjoy your life.” – Author Unknown
Breathing is important. We literally can’t live without it. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die. We breathe when we are awake and when we are asleep. We breathe fast and deep when we are running and slow and shallow when we are resting. We don’t have to think about breathing, it happens automatically. And for most of us we can only stop breathing for about a minute before the pain of oxygen deprivation kicks in and we take another breath.
Breathing is essential for our physical life, but what about emotional wellbeing? How is our breathing affected by emotional states, especially negative ones such as anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness? And how can we take back some control of our feelings by regulating our breathing?
Anyone who has ever been in a state of fear or anxiety about an upcoming event or meeting knows that his or her breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Our stress response is triggered and this kind of breathing keeps us in a state of hypervigilance, ready to fight or flee, or freeze. Anger also tends to cause us to increase the rate of breathing in addition to raising our voices or wanting to express our anger by hitting or breaking something. This kind of breathing may be only really helpful if we are in a truly life-threatening circumstance that demands rapid, powerful action.
The power of breath
Research on the power of the breath has shown that we can consciously affect the way we feel by changing the way we breathe. A 2012 randomised controlled study by the National Institute of Mental Health of 46 male and female musicians who were briefly trained in deep breathing and biofeedback suggested that a single 30-minute session of slow breathing (with or without the biofeedback component) helped reduce symptoms of anxiety before a performance, particularly in musicians who said they tended to get very anxious. (Business Insider, July 2016)
The benefits may extend to people with more severe anxiety as well. The authors of a small 2014 study of male veterans with PTSD found that those who did three hours each day of a breathing-based meditation program for a week experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms and anxiety.
So how does one get started? Consistency is more important than quantity, so it is best to start with short periods of slow conscious breathing. Close your eyes, and begin to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Place your attention on the rise and fall of your belly and chest as you breathe. Five minutes a day is a good way to start, but do it every day at a time when you won’t be disturbed. As you see the benefits of this type of breathing, you can slowly increase the amount of time you spend on it.
Becoming conscious of your breathing is the first step you can take to becoming more conscious of the present moment. And the present moment is the only time there is to live. So, take a deep breath… and smile.
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