“Just breathe.” We hear this expression a lot, especially when we’re worked up. But why do we encourage breathing to calm down? Turns out there is a physiological process that happens when we focus on our breath that can truly calm our emotions and bodies.
A Crash Course in Anatomy/Physiology
Your autonomic nervous system is comprised of two components: the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. Each is responsible for a different function. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for feelings of calm and relaxation while the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for agitation and arousal. This is where the fight or flight response lives. Both branches of the autonomic nervous system can’t be activated at the same time. It’s one or the other that is operating at any given moment. Breathing is a means to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and induce relaxation.
How to Breathe Mindfully
We breathe all day every day, and it’s such an automated process, we hardly notice it. This type of breathing isn’t going to make us feel calmer. When we breath to relax, it’s an active process that requires attention and focus on our breath. This type of breathing is called mindful breathing. Our minds like to wander and sometime race with thoughts. In mindful breathing, our mind is attentive to each individual breath and attune to every sensation involved. We notice the air entering our nose, filling our lungs, expanding our rib cage, and exiting our bodies. When our mind wants to wander, we notice, and bring it back to focusing on the sensation of our breath.
Options for Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing can be done in a variety of ways. Below are a few options you may want to experiment with:
- Some people engage in mindful breathing with counts. They count slowly 1-2-3-4 to inhale and slowly 1-2-3-4 to exhale. Other people like to breath in with a count of 1-2-3-4-5, hold the breath for a count of 1-2-3, and breath out for 1-2-3-4-5. The options for counts are limitless. Create a count pattern that feels good to you.
- Words/mantras paired with mindful breathing can increase relaxation as well. Some people like to breath in, say a peaceful word like “calm” or “relax,” breath out, and repeat the word.
- Picturing a peaceful scene can also be relaxing. Some people focus on an image in their mind of a tranquil scene as the engage in mindful breathing.
- There is also the most basic version of mindful breathing where we just observe. We don’t try to change or influence our breath. We just let it be and notice if it’s short or long, deep or shallow.
If you have questions about mindful breathing or want to engage in training, I’d love to chat with you. Please give our office a call, and we can discuss further.