I held my breath …

My heart was in my throat. I held my breath. My body was on high alert, ready for action. My muscles tight. My jaw clenched. My palms sweating. And yet, was this really a life threatening situation? Was getting my child to the school concert on time/ running late for my appointment/ bracing myself to have a tense discussion with a colleague … (and multiple other such situations) really worth getting into this state for? And yet I found here I was, in full “fight or flight” for these relatively minor “first world” problems. And yes, they are stressful at the time, and yes, I do feel myself falling into an anxious spin. But how can I change the charge of the situation? How can I calm myself to be able to think clearly, express myself, make good decisions and choices, and most importantly, model to my children how to take life’s challenges in their stride like I pray they’ll be able to?

I took a deep breath. My shoulders dropped – I didn’t even realise that they were lifted and tense. My body softened. My face relaxed. I took another deep breath and felt myself coming back to where I was now – in the traffic, at my desk in front of my computer, waiting for my presentation. Be. Here. Now. I couldn’t control whether I was going to be late. I couldn’t control the situation. But I could bring myself to the present, out of all the worries and anxieties that hijack my mind so I could deal with what was in front of me now, in this moment.

Our breath is the only conscious way that we can activate our parasympathetic (‘rest and repose’ or ‘rest and digest’) nervous system (which I talked about in the 3am Hamster Wheel). It’s the only way we can tell our bodies that we’re safe and secure and not under attack. Because if there was a real physical threat, we would be breathing in short, shallow breaths, or holding our breath, and our body would be on high alert, ready for action. When we take long, slow, deep breaths we tell our bodies that we’re ok, all is well, there is no threat and we can let go and relax.

In Western cultures, we have completely minimised the power that our breath may have on our bodies and our lives. All those Eastern and yogic breathing exercises seem slightly horrifying and undignified and look a bit ridiculous! I always felt like a fool having to do them in my pregnancy yoga classes and was just grateful that none of my friends were there to witness me! When we’re feeling stressed, anxious, drained, depressed, depleted or overwhelmed the last thing we think of doing is sitting down to do some deep breathing. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, taking some calming medication or antidepressants – those are all things we turn to. And yet research (like this research cited in Time magazine) is starting to show us how specific breathing techniques and programmes are having enormous success in helping people to deal with anxiety and stress – often to the same extent or better than medication and without the side effects. Plus, we always have access to our breath – anytime, anywhere.

And yet are any of us trained to breathe properly? Like some of us have to have speech therapy to correct speech impediments? Or physiotherapy to help improve our core tone and our walking or running? We often develop poor breathing habits as a child like mouth breathing when we have a blocked nose, or shallow breathing when we feel anxious or threatened and these habits can stay with us throughout our lives without us even being aware of them. The problem is that when we have adopted such habits, our body isn’t getting messages that we’re safe and secure and it remains on high alert at all times, making us feel anxious and restless and we feel like all is not right in our world, and yet we can’t quite pin point what we’re anxious about. It’s just this overwhelming sense of anxiety and foreboding.

So how do we breathe properly? Put your hand on your belly and feel it slowly rising as you breathe in and falling as you breathe out. Doing this is very important as it means that you are using your diaphragm to breathe and in doing so it means that you are using the full capacity of your lungs and are breathing into the lower lobes, as opposed to breathing shallowly using mostly just our upper trapezius and neck muscles – not only do we hardly get any oxygen but we also land up with a tight neck and shoulders!

Now take 6 long, slow breaths like this. I’m guessing that it feels impossibly hard to sit here for six breaths while you want to quickly finish reading this article and move onto something else. It feels hard for me. And that’s just it. We don’t have time to breathe anymore and our bodies are feeling it. It’s reflecting in our culture’s feelings of daily overwhelm, anxiety and stress, and how our bodies are breaking down in chronic disease, aches, pains and other symptoms which we’re not even aware are related to our breath.

It is time we take back our breath and become more mindful of adding things to our lives that make the most difference to how we feel. So, give it a try. Six deep breaths, six times a day – in the car, in the shower, waiting for your cup of coffee, or anytime you feel yourself falling into anxiety and overwhelm. And when you do, try to pause and rest into your body. Feel if there are any areas of tension – are you holding your shoulders tight or your arms tense or is there a knot in your stomach or a tightness in your throat? Take those deep breaths and consciously relax the tension in your body, say something that you’re grateful for in that moment, and then go back to what you were doing with a sense of calm spaciousness and presence. You’ll feel much better for it and so will your body!

PS There are even great apps to help you with this –

Breathe – Calming reminders for Mindful Breathing sends you little reminders to your phone throughout the day. I’ve loved this and the basic package is free.

Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame – fun and helpful for children up to about 8 years old

Use the ‘Breathe’ function if you have a ‘smart’ watch and actually stop to breathe for a minute! See how it affects your heartrate almost instantly!

These are just a few suggestions – there are many other wonderful apps available too!

And finally, did you do your own Gratitude Challenge? I loved doing mine on FB and Instagram. It took me beyond the ‘usual’ gratitudes and helped me to see blessings throughout my day which became too many to mention! What a wonderful and abundant place to be and life seemed to flow a lot more easily! And the days that I felt tired or more “down” it encouraged me to see that there was still so much more going “right” in my life than not – my heart was beating, I was breathing, my body had strength, I was surrounded by support and love, and if I could keep open and aware I could find things to be grateful for everywhere!

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