Be Empowered, Blog

The Power of Breath

We’ve talked before in these pages about making changes to our mindset when we start to feel emotions that threaten our progress. Throughout those discussions we’ve talked about a number of things to do when we start to see our thoughts and emotions getting away from us. Today I want to start back at the beginning and talk about the most powerful first step you can take.

Between high school and college I did a volunteer gap year program in Toronto. One of the projects I worked on was an anger management program for an inner city elementary school. It was called Red Cap and it had cool slogans and crafts and it was all around pretty rad. The first thing we learned in the program was about “anger buttons”, kid code for the things that make you inexplicably angry in an instant. The things that you know will frustrate you going into them, the things that cause your normally rational self to flee for the hills as an unknown entity takes over your body. I, for instance, had a hard time not going berserk when something bumped my glasses. Not sure why it happened, but it was instantaneous and dangerous, especially when working in close proximity to little elbows all day. Now I have contacts and my anger buttons have matured a bit. I mean, sort of, they’re still horrible and things I work on every day, but they aren’t quite as frequently occurring.

Everyone I’ve met has been able to pretty easily identify a number of “anger buttons”, and I’d guess that you’re no different. Traffic, someone bumping your coffee, the door hitting you in the butt when you’re trying to get something out of the car/house, little voices yelling at you when you have literally just stepped into the shower. I have a number of “hurt buttons” and “mean buttons” too! In the battle for peace and joy I’ve found it helpful to think about and identify these buttons as soon as possible, particularly before you get into the situation. Awareness is the first step in making progress!

It’s usually only about a second between the instant someone gives me advice about something that I am clearly handling (one of my pettier and more problematic “buttons”) and all sorts of negative feelings and like, the day is ruined! Or at least my blissed-out space is threatened. All those negative emotions and feelings come charging in pretty quickly. I immediately feel my shoulders tense, my blood pressure starts rising, I can literally feel my heart speed up. It’s not just me either, all bodies respond to stressors in this way. They’ve been mapping and studying and analyzing this process ever since students with exams have been the people doing research.

You know where it all starts? With your breath. The moment something triggers your stress response the brain decides that keeping you alive is more important and imminent than keeping itself oxygenated and it starts reserving power by making your breaths more shallow and rapid. This is obviously pretty helpful in situations when you have to use that extra energy to run away, fight off an attacker or burst into action in some other way. When you’re sitting in traffic hitting the steering wheel and throwing curses at the people in front of you, it’s not so helpful.

My favorite recently learned piece of education is this: your brain requires 3X more oxygen than the rest of your body in order to function well. So, when you are in a stressful situation your body functions on straight instinct as your little brain up there isn’t getting the oxygen it needs. Again, fine if you need to lift a car off of someone, or flee from an oncoming train, but not quite so helpful if you are trying to make intelligent sentences or important decisions.

If we want to change our responses to those “anger/hurt/frustration/mean buttons”, we have to start by getting our bodies out of instinct, natural reaction, and reflex and into something better. The best way to do that is pretty simple.

Take a deep breath.

Now, I know this is pretty basic stuff. If you grew up with a loving and patient mom like mine, you probably heard it pretty often as a kid. When you were talking too fast, crying too hard, getting overwhelmed. The advice in our house used to be to “take a deep breath and count to ten”. I had teachers who employed this in the classroom every day…I’m not sure why it isn’t in use anymore, but I’m bringing it back and finally getting some traction on changing my instinctual behavior.

When you pause, and take a good, solid breath; in through your nose, into your belly and out let out through your mouth, the most incredible things happen. All of the synapses in your body relax a bit. It’s like a signal to the whole body, “Look! We’re breathing! That must mean that we aren’t about to die a horrible death… Shut off that fight-or-flight thing now!” Your brain gets all chill because the part of your brain that knows better is telling the rest of that incredible organ to back it down a bit. That we know something it doesn’t, namely that our happiness/peace/relationships/well-being are more important than getting all stressed and angry and hurt and frustrated. When we take that first breath of fresh, cleansing air, we choose something better than our instinctual response.

You may doubt me… Hey, I didn’t believe it worked either! Then I tried it the next time I found my pulse speeding up in reaction to one of those “buttons”. It’s amazing what you can accomplish and choose for yourself when you relax and think instead of reacting.

If you want a really interesting experiment, try it next time you can’t remember someone’s name or forgot what you went into the kitchen to get.

The greatest thing about the power of the deep breath, aside from the fact that it’s honestly the easiest solution to an issue ever, is how many additional things are improved by increased oxygen flow. Fatigue decreases, your mind clears, your muscles wake up and relax, you lose that mental fog, waste gets moved along, overall stress is reduced, your body can even heal better when properly oxygenated. If you want to see the most incredible things that breathing is capable of facilitating check this out…

Now that we know that our brains require a good flow of oxygen to be able to function, hopefully you find yourself wanting to keep that little beastie pumped with what it needs to avoid those tense situations altogether. That’s where I find myself, so I practice! Try noticing the way you are breathing throughout the day. When eating, or watching TV, getting ready for bed, when you’re walking around. Notice whether your breaths are shallow or deep. Are you breathing into your chest, your belly, or both? Do you hold the breath and feel it moving through your body, or do you immediately exhale and take another breath? Good news. Like everything else, you can improve this!

Aside from doing deep breathing work, like focused breaks in which you breathe to full capacity, which I have been doing and enjoying, another great way to ensure that you are getting the most out of your brain and body by keeping them oxygenated, is to exercise! Aerobic literally means “with oxygen” so you know that any time you do aerobic or cardio exercise you are both pumping your body with oxygen and creating a greater capacity in the oxygen carrying cells of your body. Basically, if you want to think better, breathe better. And if you want to breathe better, get your heart pumping! Feeling that mid-afternoon nap calling your name? Take a quick trip up and down the stairs. Find yourself staring at the same page in your book for the last five minutes? Take a minute to breathe deep and do some jumping jacks. Anything you can do to increase your body’s access to oxygen will make a huge difference. Check out this handy resource guide for some ideas… 🙂

We all know that those anger buttons, hurt buttons, craving buttons, frustration buttons, are there. We’re gonna keep running into people who say the wrong thing. Our kids will keep fighting with their siblings. Our significant others will continue to leave the wet towels on the floor. We can’t keep ourselves from ever experiencing stressors. The only thing we can change is the way we react.

Do yourself a favor. Take a break. Count to ten. Focus on what’s important. Take control. Change those negative instinctive responses.

You can change whatever you want, and it can start with a simple breath.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Breath”

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