August 12, 2020

Breathing into wellbeing - 4 easy steps

Breathing is the first thing we do when we're born and the last thing we'll do before we die but how much importance do you give to your breathing?  

When we are upset or stressed our breathing becomes quick and shallow.  Breathing deeply and slowly instantly calms us down mentally and physically. It helps to calm the nervous system and re-connects us to our core self.

Taking time in 4-easy steps, even if it’s just a couple of minutes a day to practice mindful breathing has huge benefits on your overall health and mood.

A great, simple breathing exercise for calming both the nervous system and the over stimulated mind is a timed breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale.   When your exhale is a few counts longer than your inhale, the vagus nerve (running from the neck down through the diaphragm) sends a signal to your brain to turn up your parasympathetic nervous system and turn down your sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetics command your fight or flight response and when they fire, your heart rate and your breathing speed up, and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping through your bloodstream preparing your body to face a threat.   If the threat is, “A lion is chasing me and I need to run away” this is helpful. If the threat is, “I'm late for work” or, “I’m so upset with….” it's not helpful, and in fact can be damaging. For when cortisol is elevated for too long or too frequently it disturbs all the hormonal systems of the body leading to stress and disease.

The parasympathetics, on the other hand control your rest and digestion, the ability to relax and even help you to meditate. When the parasympathetic system is dominant, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers as the blood vessels relax and your body is put into a state of calm and healing.

So how do you activate your parasympathetic response? It's easy. Mindful breathing for a few minutes is all it takes!

Pick a count for your inhale and a count for your exhale that is a little longer. Comfort is key, don't force yourself to breathe longer, that will come with practice. I like starting with 3 counts in, and 5 counts out, but we’re all different so relax and find your own rhythm. It could be for 2 counts in and 4 out, or 5 counts in and 8 out. Notice how your breathing slows down as you relax more.

Step by step instructions:

  • To begin, sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose.
  • Then, inhale for your comfortable count … exhale gently, counting out for longer. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
  • If the 2-4 count feels too short try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, or 6 in and 8 out, and so on. But if longer breaths create any anxiety there is no need to push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale, not the absolute length of the breath.
  • Set a timer and breathe this way for at least five minutes! You will see an immediate difference in how your feeling.

In all the wellbeing and self management workshops I’ve run over the years offering mindful breathing tips is the most important element.   There's a wonderful phrase, 'the wellspring of love within' that comes from the writings of John O'Donohue.  I believe this 'wellspring of love' is within us all and it is through our breath that we allow ourselves to connect to it just take some time every day to breathe more mindfully. Not only will it help you to relax, feel good and be healthy it holds the key to the promise of our true potential.

To read 'how grounding connects us and inspires good health'  click here.