How many times have you heard or maybe even said these words yourself, “let’s just calm down and take a deep breath”? Why do we do this and what does it really do for us? The answer is A LOT!
When I have a new client in for an initial evaluation, the very first physical assessment I check is their breath pattern. This includes evaluating whether their breath is deep and relaxed or short and shallow. Does their chest and/or back move up and down spontaneously and with ease, the way a dog takes a deep breath? Or is the breath forced and limited to one area of the chest and/or back, the way a scared cat breathes? This gives me an immediate and true reading of how a body is functioning (or attempting to function) in the world. This information allows me to assess whether this person’s body is in a state of calm and ease, or if it is in a state of fight or flight (dis-ease).
Our breath is literally an instant and direct message to our nervous system (brain and spinal cord). This message is capable of creating a cascade of reactions that affect our body physically, mentally and emotionally. This can be good news or bad news depending on what message your brain and spinal cord are receiving.
Breathing is very special in that it is both a part of our Autonomic Nervous System that ticks along, and we never have to think about it; it just happens. It is also a Voluntary function, meaning we can consciously control it.
Autonomic Nervous System basically means our “Automatic” system. This system works without us ever having to think about it, nor do we have direct control over it. Functions within this system include heart rate, blood pressure, digestion AND breathing. One of the most basic and important roles of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is to immediately and efficiently respond to danger or a threat by turning our internal controls UP or DOWN.
Most of our ANS functions are completely out of our control such as heart rate and digestion. Luckily, we do not have to consciously “think” about telling our heart to beat or directing our stomach to start digesting food. This would make it hard to sleep or DO anything if that were the case. We can easily lift our arm up or down or stick our tongue out when we want to, but we are not able to directly change our heart rate, blood pressure or shut off digestion just by wishing and willing. There would never be a need for blood pressure medication and heartburn medication if this were the case! The ONLY exception to this rule within our ANS is BREATHING.
Understanding the amazing role breath plays in our ANS as well as its vital role as a voluntary function is key to understanding the effects of STRESS and ANXIETY and why it can be so difficult to feel calm. As simple as this may sound, BREATH is the key to creating a state of calm and ease within in our body and mind.
90% of disease in this country is STRESS related…here’s why.
Within our ANS, all of its functions are very closely linked. For example, our heart rate will immediately increase in a “fight or flight response” and it is very unlikely that other functions such as blood pressure, respirations, and digestion will not change with it. This is our very basic reptilian brain responding to danger or a threat, and this is a good thing. This prepares our body to respond by either fighting back or fleeing a life-threatening situation, such as a tiger chasing you. This is a REAL physical, mental and emotional stressor. Our body is designed to react this way in order to survive.
However, in our modern culture where most of us have not, and will not EVER be chased by a tiger, our bodies continually respond to “perceived” stressors on a daily basis. These modern-day stressors include such things as worrying about money, relationship difficulties, school, work, and physical tension. Our ANS responds accordingly as it does not differentiate between a real or perceived threat. As a result, we remain in this “fight or flight” response as long as our brain and spinal cord get the message that there is a threat!
The response to these perceived threats includes constant increase in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. This response in turn creates a constant state of tension throughout our body and may slow or shut down digestion, elimination, or reproduction, as well as our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions. A body struggles to function, let alone heal, while in a constant state of tension.
The GREAT NEWS here is that we have control of our breath! Since breath is such a big a part of our ANS, as we direct our breath to change, other functions within our system, such as heart rate and blood pressure, will follow. Our reptilian brain responds directly to a change in breath pattern. A dog resting in its nice safe home will take a nice long and relaxed breath in which the entire abdomen and chest will rise and fall. As a result, heart rate is slowed and muscle tension drops. They are not being hunted, and there is no fear of a predator hearing their breath. On the other hand, a scared or threatened cat will hiss loudly and then barely breathe at all for fear of being hunted. As a result, heart rate increases and muscles tense up, often causing them to arch their back up in a fight response.
Are you a relaxed dog or a scared cat?
What I see in my practice every day, and what I have seen in many years working as a hospital floor nurse, is that breathing becomes a pattern directly related to a person’s lifestyle and activity. Just like tight shoulder muscles, low backache and tension headaches. We all know that it is possible to change these muscular patterns with conscious stretching, physical therapy or massage. What most people do not realize is that by simply consciously changing your breath pattern, we directly create change in physical, mental and emotional patters in our body as well!
The ability to control our breath is FREE and we ALWAYS have it with us wherever we go. With this knowledge and a little practice, we have the ability to change our body’s response from fight or flight to a state of ease and relaxation within a matter of minutes.
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Often the first (and most important) homework I give to clients is to simply practice taking 3-5 deep, slow breaths a couple of times a day and especially when we find ourselves feeling stressed or anxious.
This is taking a complete breath in through the nose, while allowing your chest to expand to its fullest capacity, and exhaling out through your open mouth while making a sighing or “ha” sound.
This allows muscle tension (and shoulders) to naturally drop. When we make this sigh or “ha” sound, we are not trying to control the breath with our mouth or abdomen. The importance of this exercise is not only to stop the body’s stress response, but also to allow yourself to start to recognize what it feels like again to take a real breath.
Remember this: a scared or threatened cat will NOT take a nice, loud, slow and deep breath for fear of being hunted; he is in real and immediate danger. He will breathe very quietly, short and shallow, or even hold his breath. This response creates an arched back and increased muscle tension! A happy, safe and content dog WILL take a nice loud and slow deep breath because he feels safe. His muscle tension will drop! He may even roll over on to his side, stretch out and take a nice nap.
Which do you prefer to be, the scared cat or the relaxed dog? You DO have a choice and the ability to create the reaction you want!
There are many activities or tools that I recommend and teach to my clients that focus directly on learning to consciously control and connect to our breath. These include yoga, meditation, Tai Chi and mind-full breath.
Here is an example of mind-full breathing; I call it the Stop, Drop and Breathe exercise.
Stop, Drop and Breathe Exercise
First breath – This breath stops the fight or flight reaction as it is a direct message to our nervous system to POWER DOWN.
Second breath – This breath allows us to pause and drop tension so we are able to recognize that we have the ability to RESPOND vs. REACT.
Third breath – This third and cleansing breath creates mental clarity and the ability to shift our thinking to make BETTER DECISIONS in that moment.
Lisa Adams is a Certified Flowtrition Practitioner, nurse and health and wellness educator who has combined over 24 years of experience as a registered nurse with training in Flowtrition as well as therapeutic massage and bodywork to provide her clients with the most comprehensive and holistic approach to preventive healthcare. Lisa believes that wellness starts from within and that if we have trust in our body’s ability to heal as it is designed, amazing things happen. She also believes that optimal health is achieved in a multi-system approach that includes body, mind and spirit. Lisa’s passion to increase awareness in individuals about the way their body functions.
“The body cannot begin to heal while in a constant state of tension.”
~ Lisa Adams ~