Everyone breathes. Mostly not well.
That’s commentary from James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.
As part of my involvement in Lifestyle Medicine, I’ve become interested in mindfulness meditation and breathwork as methods of stress management. And who couldn’t use that these days?! Nestor, a journalist, was referred to a breathing class by his own doctor because of stress and respiratory issues, including multiple pneumonias. His book takes us through the extensive research that followed, culminating in recommendations for how to breathe better. Other experts’ opinions are noted here as well.
Of course, we all breathe. We wouldn’t be here reading this article if we didn’t. But breathing is an unusual function. Like digestion or your heartbeat, it is automatic. It happens whether you think about it or not. But unlike those other functions, it is also under your control. You can choose to breathe through your nose or your mouth, more or less deeply, 6 times a minute or 16 … Those choices affect your mood, physical endurance and overall wellbeing. And they can greatly affect how you react to stress. Stress is a normal part of life, but how you react to it makes a huge difference. What follows are simple hints that can help.
Many people take quick shallow breaths, without realizing it. This preferentially triggers nerves in the sympathetic nervous system – the one we know as fight or flight. The lungs then communicate to the brain that we’re anxious.
If we breathe more deeply – and cause our diaphragm muscles under our lungs to move significantly downward – and feel our lower abdomen push out a little, we summon other nerves. These are part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the one we know as rest and digest, or feed and breed. It’s the relaxing part of the nervous system.
Overall there are many brain – body connections. The PNS is a big part of that, and more of those signals are going from the body to the brain than in the other direction. When you take a good breath into the bases of your lungs, the nerves in your chest whisper to your brain that you’re relaxed.
Also, by focusing on the quality and timing of your breath, you distract yourself from stressors. In many ways, doing an exercise of taking somewhat deeper breaths and focusing on a longer exhale can help you to relax. Think of it as comfortably deep, but not excessive.
Mindful meditation or breathing exercises can take many forms. If you haven’t tried it before, consider this. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and just focus on your breath. There’s no need to force it or to hold your breath. Just take comfortable long breaths in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth, and relax.
Cyclic sigh is another version, recommended by Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Stanford Center on Stress and Health. Cyclic sighing is a routine of taking in a breath, and another ‘sip’, then exhaling. His research showed that practicing this pattern is best for improving mood, decreasing overall resting respiratory rate, and decreasing the startle response when something unexpected happens.
There are many helpful patterns, including circular (equal times in and out), square (inhale, hold, exhale, hold), etc. But simply sitting and focusing on your breath without altering it can help decrease the rate and help you relax. Try it before or during a stressful period and see if it helps you. It has made a huge difference for me!
Mindfulness Daily – free 40 day mindfulness experience with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield – breathing, emotions, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude https://courses.tarabrach.com/courses/mindfulness-daily
Ten Percent Happier app – Stress Better series, daily 10 minute meditations, sessions to help sleep, podcasts.
iBreathe – app that you can program to signal your preferred breath cycle; free but $3 to avoid the MANY ads
Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor, 2020.