All you need to do is breathe.
Not those short shallow breaths you normally take. A BIG BREATH. A breath that goes as deep into your lungs as possible. Not so big that it feels exaggerated but bigger than normal. A breath that requires your belly to let go.
That is your fast pass to relaxation.
Why … How?
If you take a deep breath and your belly opens you are allowing a muscle called the diaphragm, found underneath your lungs, to move. This upside down bowl shaped muscle moves down when you take in that deep breath and moves back up into place when you let the breath out. The Vagus nerve, your main connection to your Parasympathetic nervous system - the rest and digest mode, runs from the base of the brain down the center of the body and straight through your diaphragm.
So, when you take a deep breath the diaphragm moves around the vagus nerve and stimulates your rest and digest mode. You may remember from last week's post that your rest and digest mode is the way to counteract how stress affects your body.
All you need to do is breathe.
Without trying to change it, stop for a second and notice how you'e breathing. Most people don't take in a full breath. It’s usually shallow and stays in the chest. You might feel your shoulders move up and down when you breathe and you may notice your lungs expand just a little bit. If so you aren’t using your ability to breathe to its full capacity.
Understanding that is the first step to changing it.
When you take shallow breaths you aren’t using the muscles in between your ribs and over time they can become tight due to underuse. Your lungs also don’t get to move as fully as they can which means you aren’t using your diaphragm which is also a muscle. Nothing is used the way it can and should be in a breath if you aren’t breathing deeply.
It’s not a surprise if you aren’t breathing deeply.
When you are under stress and your fight or flight mode is active your body doesn’t want to take deep breaths it wants to take short shallow quick breaths so it is ready to run or fight. Think about it, when you are scared your breathing is quick, when you are angry it is shallow and when you are under enormous stress you sometimes will even hold your breath.
Your body is always telling you what is going on by changing your breath accordingly. Breathing happens both automatically and is controlled by you. If we didn’t breath automatically we would have to constantly focus on breathing to stay alive. Since there is a better chance of survival if it is done automatically your breath comes in and out without you asking for it to. Your body doesn’t ask you how deep of a breath you want. It just does it and gives you enough to keep you alive. Breathing is one of only a few things that we have control over that we also do automatically. That’s awesome because it not only is a good way to see how you are dealing with life it is also a tool you can use to bring relaxation.
Let’s use that skill.
Sit up tall or stand.
Try to let your shoulders relax.
Try to relax the muscles of your face.
Relax your belly. Don’t hold it in.
Now with each breath in try to make it just a little bit deeper.
Notice your ribs expanding more and your belly moving out a little.
Each time you breathe in make it a little bit bigger until you feel it as different than your regular breath but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. It also doesn’t make you feel like you are out of breath.
Once you've found your comfortable deep breath in and out do it 10 times. If it’s safe for you to, close your eyes.
Now that you’ve read the instructions take a second to do it. It takes less than a minute to do. Don’t say to yourself - I’ll just try it later. You have to breathe anyway for this next minute.
You’ve tried the deeper breath. You might have noticed a change in how you feel. For most of you I suspect you felt a little bit calmer. If it created tension or anxiety then start with just three deep breathes and slowly add more each time.
Stay with this one thing this week. Find times to do it throughout the day. Maybe you can do this when you wake up, before getting out of bed. Or after/ before a meeting or eating a meal.
If you would like to listen to a guided breathing exercise you can access one for free here. It is just 5 minutes long and can help you experiencing how breath can relax the body.
Just play around with your ability to control how you breath and next week we will work on how to make these moments of calm part of your everyday routine.