While various breathing practices have been around for centuries, science is just beginning to provide evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice are real. Studies have found that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and emotional dysregulation. But breathwork can also be a simple and effective practice of self-regulation. Can you lift yourself up when feeling down, or calm yourself down when feeling amped up? This is where it really becomes a useful tool.
Breathwork encompasses a broad range of whole-being therapeutic practices and exercises used to relieve mental, physical, and/or emotional tension. But it is also more than just breathing correctly or engaging in a specific method with a specific outcome. With direction and intention it can become a remote control to the nervous system. We are the only mammals that have volitional control over our breathing, and this affords us the opportunity to change our state.
How does breathwork affect the way we feel?
Your breathing reflects your state. When you are feeling stressed or anxious … your breathing changes. When you are feeling calm and content … your breathing changes. But in addition to reflecting our internal state, it also affects our internal state. Breathe like you are calm and relaxed, you will start to shift the body’s current state. Breathe like you are under threat, the body will assume it is under threat.
The autonomic nervous system can be thought of as both the accelerator (sympathetic) and the brake (parasympathetic). This is important as we need to be in a very different state when we are engaging in physical exertion versus preparing to go to sleep. Quite often we may be met with a mismatch. We’re preparing to go to bed at night yet our mind is racing, our body is tense, and our emotions may be all over the place. Breath can be the calm in the storm, the anchor to which we can still our body and mind.
In simple terms, the inhale is linked to the sympathetic nervous system (accelerator) and the exhale to the parasympathetic (brake). By controlling the duration of each part of the breath we can start to influence which part of the nervous system is active. The other thing we need to consider is how we are breathing. The mouth is more sympathetic and the nose more parasympathetic. Breathing high into the chest will stimulate (sympathetic) and breathing low into the belly will calm (parasympathetic). Finally, speed is important, the faster I breathe the more the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, and when I slow the breath down I start to shift into a more parasympathetic state.
Let’s look at a few simple exercises to begin to understand the influence we have over our nervous system state.
It is really important to become aware of your breath throughout the day. You may unknowingly be pushing your nervous system into a stress state simply by the way you are breathing. By consistently checking in with your breath you will start to pick up your common habits.
- Mouth or Nose
- Chest or Belly
- Fast or Slow
When you are wanting to balance the nervous system and bring a state of calm throughout your being, this practice can be incredibly effective. Try using between work and home, or
between tasks of a different nature to reset and redirect.
- Sit comfortably
- Bring your attention to your breath, relax your body
- Using your nose, breathe in gently for a count of 5, and out gently for a count of 5
- Become aware of the sensations or movements as you breathe, not letting the mindwander. Feel your body expand with every inhale, and relax with every exhale
- Continue for 3-5 minutes.
This is the pattern we naturally fall into when asleep, so it is a great way to transition the nervous system to a more restful state. Try this for 5 minutes before going to bed.
- Sitting or laying, eyes closed
- Consciously slow your breath to a comfortable, easy rhythm.
- Count your inhale (eg. 4), match your exhale (4) and then introduce a pause (4) betweenthe exhale and inhale.
- Allow your inhale to flow in gently, exhale to flow out gently, and then simply pause afterthe exhale, allowing the space to grow momentarily longer each round.
- Let the inhale come, let the exhale go, pause.
The more aware you are of your breath, the more you can use it to change how you are feeling. Get into the practice of simply becoming aware of how you are breathing. Ask yourself, is my breathing matching how I want to be feeling right now? Is it slow, calm and steady? Or fast and erratic. And begin to use your breath to influence how you are currently feeling. Using the breath to down regulate the nervous system after moments of stress or simply at the end of the day to wind down. You will be more in tune with your body, and this is always a good thing.