This morning I forgot to breathe. I slept through my alarm, and rushed to a meeting. I spent the afternoon working on numerous projects, and when a colleague called to give me a report to follow-up on tomorrow, I noticed a tension headache beginning. That’s when I realized I had forgotten to breathe. Bear with me while I explain.
While looking for balance in life, it can be helpful to identify the biggest obstacle – or what’s in your face the most? As I identified my longing for a quiet, peaceful place to sort this all out, I jumped right ahead to list all the distractions that I’m chasing. However, I skipped over one of the most important parts of this journey so far –
Finding a place of peace amidst the chaos.
In my intense, passionate, and distractable psyche and spirit, how do I learn to be still? How do I learn to sit with feelings that are uncomfortable? How does the person who keeps the television 0n for background noise at all times learn to quiet my racing thoughts? How do I stop that physical reaction to conflict, or shame, or disappointment?
When I returned to counseling a few months ago, my counselor suggested a book called the The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotions. I wasn’t opposed to the practice of deep breathing, but to be honest, sitting still for any length of time has never been my strong point. I get bored, my mind wanders. I start making a grocery list. But I have found that as I get older, and particularly as I am attempting to sift through some of the chaos in my heart and mind, I am developing a love and even a longing for times of quiet. Still, empty quiet.
This may sound wonderful and lovely and normal to you, but for me – this is nowhere near my normal. But things are changing. I know that part of it is my decreased ability to multi-task as I age. I also believe that the chaos has sometimes served as a coping mechanism – if I am too busy, too distracted, too chaotic, if there is always noise, I don’t have to deal with whatever may be sitting there in the dark shadows of the quiet. In my search for balance, I am realizing the value of sitting in the quiet, and bringing to light what is in the dark shadows.
One tool I’m finding helpful to fight the distractions is mindful, or coherent breathing. I’m just learning, and I’m not consistent, but I have to admit, when I start my day with deep breathing, there seems to be a difference. I haven’t read much of the book – I mean, it’s a book about breathing – but the book came with a CD which I keep in my car and practice on the way to work. It’s not ideal, because you’re supposed to be seated comfortably with your eyes closed. I have tried the deep breathing exercises in the mornings (when I remember) and it may be a placebo effect, but I am beginning to notice a difference. Or should I say, I noticed a difference today when I did NOT start my day with deep breathing. I find myself using it while I drive and when I am beginning to feel stress or anxiety. When I practice deep breathing, it is easier to not react to stressful situations, and it seems easier to remain calm and not have such an intense emotional reaction. It can also be really helpful to relax and clear your mind when you’re trying to go to sleep.
A few years ago NPR did a story on the biological changes that occur when we practice deep breathing, the body’s ‘built-in stress reliever’:
“Research has shown that breathing exercises like these can have immediate effects by altering the pH of the blood, or changing blood pressure. But more importantly, they can be used as a method to train the body’s reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones. . . Rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response — the part activated by stress. In contrast, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates the opposing parasympathetic reaction — the one that calms us down.” (Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever by Gretchen Cuda)
I’m just starting with 3-5 minutes, in the morning, and sometimes at night. I try to set my phone alarm, and pratice coherent breathing before i ever get out of bed. I even found an app to keep track of the time for me.
Why don’t you try it with me for a few weeks, and then report back?
This begins at your natural breath rate and very gradually slows your breathing down.
Beginning Steps for Coherent Breathing
• Breathe through your nose with your eyes closed.
• Taking your time, count slowly and silently in your mind: As you breathe in, . . . two . . . as you breathe out . . . two . . . repeat this for two breaths.
• Taking your time, count slowly: As you breathe in . . . two . . .three . . . as you breathe out, . . . two . . . three . . . repeat this for three breaths.
• Taking your time, count slowly: As you breathe in . . . two . . .three . . . four . . . as you breathe out . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . repeat this for four breaths.
• Taking your time, count a little more slowly: As you breathe in . . .two . . . three . . . four . . . as you breathe out . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . repeat this for four breaths.
Once you learn to breathe at five breaths per minute, you will not need to use these learning steps. You will be able to just start and within a few breaths you will be in the correct rhythm.