Have you been feeling the steady, seductive pull of an Elder God’s whispers lately? The unraveling tendrils of the Inevitable End taking bits of your sanity with it into the great, cold dark? Are the stars beginning to draw you into their inexorable currents, showing you that which makes all things shiver?
Do I have a treat for you! One of the best ways to face the bitter madness, barely held at bay by this liminal reality, is to take a - Ahhh… - deep, deep breath. Yes, breathe deeply and strengthen your sanity.
Horror aside, I’ve mentioned breathing a few times this week, so I thought it would be worth deliberating on one of my personal favorite ways to reduce stress.
Mindful breathing is a natural counterbalance to your body’s fight-or-flight instinct and the hormones, like cortisol, it pumps into your body. It’s also one of those weird, intuitive things we all kind of know. Have you ever been told, preemptively, “It's alright, just breathe, it’s alright,” and have you ever taken a moment to consider how weird that is to say? Like, yes, of course I’m going to breathe, otherwise I’d die. I breathe all the time, stupid.
But we know that there’s a difference, of course, between our automatic breathing and the sort of deep, conscious breath we take to calm ourselves.
It’s a lot like running, compared to walking. When you walk, you use relatively few muscles. Your calves, mostly, maybe some quad. A little core to keep your back steady. But when you run! You engage your whole body: your calves and quads and back and core and arms, all exerting together to propel yourself forward through space.
When you’re automatically breathing, you’re often taking shallow “chest breaths.” This might be a result of our culture and body image issues, the way we seem to value a flat stomach as a society and the horror of breaking that flatness by actually using our muscles to breathe. Chest breathing only employs a few supporting, ancillary muscle groups to get your lungs pumping, completely neglecting the diaphragm, which is a powerhouse-bellows-of-a-muscle that gets your lungs working.
One of the most common advice singers will remind each other of is to, “Engage your diaphragm!” It's much the same way everyone seems to enjoy telling others to, “put [their] back into it!” when trying to lift something heavy.
When you engage your diaphragm and take a nice, deep belly breath, your lungs actually fill and get to do the work they were designed for, before we all started engaging our abdominals as much as possible throughout the day in the name of keeping our tummies in. Those little chest breaths you are taking automatically actually mimic the breathing pattern of your stress response, and the lower levels of oxygen in your blood causes increased tension and stress.
However, when you take a deep, filling, breath, what you are doing is saturating your cells with the oxygen they crave, in turn activating a bunch of nerves and stuff that gives you more energy and puts you in a more relaxed state. Proper oxygen saturation improves your circulation, dilating your blood vessels and reducing your blood pressure, slowing your heartbeat. The slowing helps reduce your anxiety and stress; much like the stressful panicked feeling that sets in when you challenge your brother to see who can hold their breath underwater the longest is triggered by lack of oxygen, your chronic low oxygen levels of your chest breathing is increasing your tension and nervousness more than you’re aware - until you take a deep breath!
We all like to think we know how to breathe, and like all things we like to think we know, a quick Googling session will reveal that somewhere out there is a group of maniacs that have taken something so natural and obvious like breathing to a whole new level of practice and mastery.
While I’m not master of breathing, through my yoga teacher training and anger management workshops I’ve been given a greater-than-average amount of tips and tools to bring to my moments of mindful breathing.
So, how to breathe without being weird and pretentious about it?
Easy. Use your diaphragm, and count. Hopefully you know how to do the latter, so you won’t have to go back to Kindergarten before we talk about using your diaphragm.
The limited range-of-motion we give to our diaphragm is why chest breathing isn’t nearly effective enough to limit our stress. You might’ve heard the phrase “belly breathing” before, and if you haven’t, well, just imagine how a baby breathes. Have you ever seen a baby breathe? Their whole belly rises up. Your diaphragm is a lot like an inner-tube, and when you properly breathe with it you’ll see yourself expand outwards as the “tube” inflates, but all you really need to do is imagine breathing down, letting your abdominal muscles relax to make room for the deep breath you are taking. Don’t stop at your chest - in fact, minimizing your chest expansion is a pretty decent sign you’re doing it right, too.
As you inhale, bringing all that sweet, sweet oxygen into your system, count. Just a little tempo count, say to 5: 1… 2… 3… 4…. 5…
And exhale all that weird carbon dioxide to the same beat: 1… 2… 3… 4… 5…
Do it again, either to a target number of breaths or to a timer. Maybe for a minute, maybe for five, better for ten. As you get more comfortable with the process, take slower breaths. Use a count of six, or seven. Work your way up as it’s more natural.
It might seem like a weird hippy thing to do, or not your cup of tea, but if you humor the idea and come to the exercise seriously, I guarantee you’ll find an incredible, free, on-hand remedy to the stress that you’ll encounter in your heated matches or in your everyday living. No credit card, no purchase needed. You have the bellows within you to forge a less stressful existence. So breathe.