As humans we are very lucky to be able to carry our most important tools with us all the time. I feel that the most important tool we have to use is our breath, and yet many times we do not use it effectively. Now, if you are like most of my clients, I can imagine right now that you are rolling your eyes and saying “yes, I know how to breathe” or “tell me something I don’t know”. The fact is however that many do not understand not only how important the breath is, but how important it is to use it correctly and how to do that. Shall we begin?
Breath is actually the one and only tool we carry around with us 24/7 that can help to calm us down both physically and mentally. If I had the opportunity to hook you up to a biofeedback machine and have you breathe, you would actually see the decrease in muscle tension, the change in brain chemistry as well as the change in your body temperature. (Some of my clients right now are actually testing this out while they run on a treadmill or the elliptical machines. They are noticing how they can change and control their heart rate while they are running and are amazed.)
As we get upset, whether it is anger or anxiety, fear, stress or frustration, our fight or flight response goes off. What this actually means is that, among other things, our body starts pumping adrenaline. When this happens we often notice that there are changes in our body (heart pounding, feeling hot, body tenses up, clenching fists, to name a few). What also happens is that our rational brain shuts itself off and our irrational brain turns on, which makes it difficult to feel like we have control. Often we get a feeling of things speeding up.
By using our breath, it not only helps us calm down our body, but it also helps the brain stay in a rational space.
Now, how do we breathe properly? What I have noticed is that most people breathe from their chest (or what I like to call chest breathing). If you stand in front of a mirror and breathe you should not see your chest or shoulders rise at all. If you put your hands on your belly and try to push them out as your diaphragm fills up with air it can become a fun game. By doing this you take the emphasis off your chest and bring it into the depths of your belly (or your diaphragm). This is the breath that will actually calm you. If you use chest breathing, you will actually keep yourself in the hyper arousal cycle which will make emotional states such as anxiety, anger and stress so much worse.
Take some time each day to test out diaphragmatic breathing. The better you become at using this skill, the easier it becomes to calm yourself down in tough situations.