How you breathe affects every aspect of your mind and body. From thousands-of-years-old yogic teachings to today’s clinical knowledge of respiratory physiology and the nervous system, it’s clearer than ever that the mind follows the breath—and vice versa.
Anything you repeat becomes more deeply embedded as a habit and grows in the direction you keep moving it. We breathe more times per day—15,000 to 20,000 times daily—than we do any other bodily function we have conscious control over. That’s a lot of reps.
How you breathe makes a big difference. As an article in Nursing Times put it, “An inability to breathe normally is extremely distressing and the more distressed a person becomes, the more likely it is that their breathing will be compromised.” The article continues:
“Changes in breathing rate and depth at rest not only tell us about physical changes in the body, but also about mental and emotional changes, as our state of mind and our feelings have an effect on our breathing.”
From Nursing Times
Author Kelly DiNardo wrote for AARP: “Changing our breathing patterns can help us regulate our emotions. Other studies show the trickle-up effect the body and our breath have on the mind: Research has shown breathing practices can calm us down, reduce anxiety, decrease depression and lower stress.”
So, how do you change the breath? First, notice what is; second, offer safe challenges toward progress in the direction you want to go.
First: Utilize Mindfulness
The first step is mindfulness: paying attention on purpose without judgment (including observing neutrally when you fall into moments of judgment). Knowing where you are grounds you to make better decisions and provide a launching pad for where you want to go.
Getting lost in the mind as it flits from one thought to the next is like flipping TV channels with the remote control. Stopping for a moment of mindfulness—I sense the mind is flitting around—is like turning off the TV. Maybe only for a moment or so, but that moment of mindfulness is significant and deeply soothing to the nervous system. Taking an additional moment to appreciate having that kind of control locks it into your nervous system as a reward.
“There are now hundreds of published scientific papers on the clinical efficacy and even the neuroscience behind mindfulness.”
~Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, Judson Brewer, MD, PhD
The winning moment is exactly when you notice the mind’s excursion and return to observation. Doing that once is doing one rep. Doing many, many of those reps improves mental fitness: focus, alertness, calm, and the ability to understand what’s going on inside and outside yourself. Mindfulness is associated with reduced symptoms from all kinds of condition and better physical health too.
No one expects you to stay permanently mindful, never again getting lost in thought. Rather, thinking, remembering, and speculating are what the mind does. It’s a thought machine! Repeatedly, gently escorting the mind back to the present moment is the superpower we have to situate ourselves in reality, the moment that is always right now. Doing that repeatedly is winning, winning, winning.
So, if the breath is choppy and uneven, notice that. If it’s shallow and mainly in the chest, observe that. If it’s slow and steady, note that. One thing’s for sure: it will change. Notice that.
And when the mind drifts away, and it will, gently bring it back to the breath. Again. And again.
Second: Take On Safe Challenges
Once you’ve tasted mindfulness, keep tasting it. To progress further, accept challenges within the realm of safety. The challenges must present enough stress to get your brain working but not so much that there’s alarm.
Simply learning to challenge yourself within the range between safe and not-safe is a valuable skill. If you go too far, if the brain decides “not safe!” then mindfulness is inaccessible, at least until the alarm subsides. Because that level of stress shuts down higher brain functions and triggers the oldest parts of the brain that command you to fight, flight, or freeze.
Think of it this way. If you step into the roadway and a car zooms up, you don’t have time to think thoughts and make decisions. Faster than the speed of thought, your brain’s limbic system causes you to leap back out of the road to save your life.
If you challenge yourself to the point that your limbic system thinks you need protection, it’s time to back off, rest until those responses subside, and return to a safe level of challenge you can work with mindfully using the higher brain function of the prefrontal cortex.
What Happened to You? is a book that poignantly, systematically, and scientifically unpacks what happens when children are raised amid persistent stress that exceeds their capacity to feel safe and cared for. It also talks about how to build the skills to self-regulate and the capacity to meet stress, which is inevitable in every life.
“It’s kind of like weight lifting for our stress-response systems; we exercise the system to make it stronger. The more we face moderate challenges and succeed, the more capable we are of facing bigger challenges. This is something we see in sports, performing arts, clinical practice, firefighting, teaching—almost any human endeavor; experience can improve performance.”
~What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, and Oprah Winfrey (p. 83)
We’ll Accompany and Help Guide You Toward Greater Resilience
We offer breathwork to soothe the nervous system and increase your awareness in the present moment. You’ll learn practices to develop your skills to proceed into all the moments that follow.
We help you find your way between those magical goalposts: challenge that presents just enough stress to keep you alert and stimulate growth and helps you develop the wisdom to make use of it. Then it’s up to you: they’re called practices because, like physical exercise, they work only when repeated week after week, year after year.
You don’t exercise to get better at exercise. You exercise to improve your health, pursue the activities you enjoy, and live a better life.
This may sound grand and complicated. It’s as simple as the next gentle breath. And the one after that.