I was late & racing up the stairs to my therapy appointment, my therapist behind me and I chatting over my shoulder about the weather. I rushed into the room and got into position, him seated across from me, he took a deep breath and made eye contact. He said nothing…. God it was awkward; why does he say nothing? He took another deep breath in, smiled and long exhale out. I smiled nervously, not knowing what I was supposed to do but just wishing we could get on with it. ‘Do you ever breathe Gillian?’ I replied without hesitation ‘No, not properly’.
I knew deep down that I didn’t ever take a moment to fully be present, to relax my body and my mind. I had a lot to say, a lot to think and no time to breathe. I was always rushing, and that eye contact thing, that was difficult, it still is to be honest. We started to breathe together and although it was awkward at first, I couldn’t help but notice my body relax and my thoughts slow down. Every week he would ask me what ‘how is your breathing’ and I would reply ‘getting better’ and you know what, it was.
I started to notice my reactions change and that I was feeling more calm, more resilient, more capable. I was intrigued by this, I am someone who suffers with bouts of high anxiety and I also have an autoimmune condition, which was triggered by chronic stress. If you want to know about stress, I have a PhD in it. So, I decided to research what was actually happening to me on a physiological level, and this is what I found out, but please do your own research too.
Our nervous system comprises of two parts; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by the fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger, and the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a state of calm.
Research shows that deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system bringing us into a state of calm. Meditation teacher and Health and Wellness expert, David Ji says that human beings go into stress mode between 8-15 times per day. What we perceive as threats can range from disagreements with our partner, someone cutting out in front of you in traffic, hearing something scary on the news or listening to our own fearful thoughts. When we perceive a threat, our body floods with cortisol, our fists clench, blood pressure rises, immune system starts to shut down and we go into fight or flight. The more this happens, the more damage we can do to our bodies, but a simple 1-minute-deep breathing exercise can reverse this and help to promote wellbeing in our bodies.
Whilst I was glad to know that breathing deeply was helping my physical health, I was even more grateful for what it was doing to emotional and mental health too. By activating my parasympathetic nervous system, I become calm, when I become calm, my thoughts slow down, when my thoughts slow I feel safe and begin to choose better feeling thoughts like :
‘this too shall pass’
‘everything always works out for me’
‘I am safe’
‘I am loved’
‘I’ve got this’
‘I am able’
Here are 3 breathing techniques that help me. Please note I have not studied breath work, however I have attended many of breathing workshops and meditation and wellness trainings over the years that bring the power of breathing into evoking transformation in our lives.
Using 5-5-5 Breathing to Calm Down & Shift your Emotional State
- Inhale very slowly through your nose for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
- Exhale very slowly through your nose or mouth for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
- Wait for 5 seconds: 1-2-3-4-5.
- Repeat the process three more times (1 minute total).
- Notice how you feel. (You should feel calmer.)
To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:
- empty the lungs of air.
- breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
- hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds.
- exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds.
- repeat the cycle up to 3 times.
You may feel lightheaded so only go at a pace that you are comfortable with.
Box breathing or 4-4-4-4 breathing aid
- Breathe in through your nose while counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath inside while counting slowly to four. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut.
- Begin to slowly exhale through the nose for 4 seconds.
- Repeat this for 5 minutes