Take a deep breath, and hold it. And hold it. And hold it. Hold it until your body insists that you breathe. Then breathe!
Did you get pretty uncomfortable toward the end there? We have a powerfully built-in mechanism to be sure that we keep breathing. Our bodies need the oxygen.
Yet, paradoxically, another mechanism in the body often keeps us from getting all the oxygen that we could benefit from. When we feel afraid or threatened or discouraged, our breathing typically becomes more shallow – not shallow enough to threaten life, but shallow enough that our bodies don’t work optimally.
For most of us, during the process of growing up, this unconscious process of making our breath more shallow occurs thousands of times, and gradually our habitual way of breathing becomes more shallow than it was when we were infants. We pay a price for this loss in our breathing – some systems of our bodies may not work as well, we may be less relaxed, we may feel less connected to the world around us. Different people will experience different effects, but almost nobody has any idea that it has to do with the breath.
So there we are, habitually breathing in a somewhat limited manner, when along comes a crisis of some kind. It doesn’t have to be climate change or losing your job. Even a minor argument can do it. We breathe more shallowly still!
There is a way out of this dilemma, and it’s to learn to breathe deeply. Once you do that, the next step is to develop the habit of breathing deeply when you are feeling stress. “Remember to breathe!” my friend Char and I used to say to each other frequently. A third step is to make deep breathing part of your daily routines.
While sitting in a chair or lying down on your back, put one hand on your chest and one on your belly, below your waist. Take ten or twenty deep breaths, and notice what moves. Did your belly move out much? That’s the goal.
Practice taking a big breath in, and bringing it down below your waist so that your abdomen sticks out. (I sometimes visualize that a balloon is being blown up in my abdomen.) Once the abdomen is full, then let your chest expand as well. Then let the breath out: chest deflating, then belly.
There are various schools of thought about whether to pause at the top or the bottom of the breath. I like connected breathing best myself, where the inbreath and the outbreath flow continuously, but do whatever you like. Practice this until it’s natural for you to breathe deeply whenever you think about it.
When you notice something stressful going on, just a few breaths like this will release the tendency to hold your breath. For more benefit, quite possibly a lot more benefit, make deep breathing a part of your daily habits. Here’s one good source for more information: