Have you been so privileged to witness your child’s first breath at birth? Wow! Our breathing is so fundamental to life. On the hierarchy of needs it is pretty much number one. So we are endowed with a hind-brain that ensures we breathe whether we are asleep or awake, happy or sad, rich or poor, etc. We just need access to the life-giving oxygen.
So we all “know” how to breathe, at least if we have a fully developed (for babies) or intact brain (for the rest of us). Indeed, the instinct to breathe is so powerful and ultimately beyond our control that we will drown by attempting a breath if stuck under water for an extended period.
Effectively, our breathing is under the unconscious control of our hind-brain. What an amazing system, that sustains life, as well as manages so many other systems including sleep, hunger, digestion, sex drive, fight-flight-freeze response, immune system responses, heart rate, and much more. A ‘black-box’ that we cannot transplant.
However, while our hind-brain manages our breathing, our conscious brain ( our awareness centre in our cerebral cortex) has capacity to influence our breathing. Such a process of breathing in a deliberate and particular way can be a vital life skill, optimising wellbeing as a consequence, in many ways.
Deep slow rhythmic breathing will activate signals via the diaphragm-attached vagus nerve to communicate with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), hosted in the hind-brain. The PNS is associated with the calming or relaxation response, working in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the latter being an activating system.
The SNS and PNS work together to help us “go faster” or “slow down” as need be. Like the two foot-pedals in an automatic motor-vehicle. The problem is, most people are able to activate but less able to moderate. In part, this is because they do not use their breathing as a means to calm down. Once they learn or are taught to do so, they are most pleased at how profound and useful such a mechanism is.
One of the primary organs in the body influencing our emotional or arousal state is the heart. Aside for when we are vigourosly exercising , the heart is the key mediating system that facilitates calmness and relaxation. In partnership with the vagus nerve and the PNS, the heart acts like the ‘conductor in the orchestra’, working to guide all other organs and systems in the body in the pursuit of physiological harmony. In turn and interactively, our interface to the heart is through our deliberate breathing.
By consciously choosing to breath in a rhythmic and natural way (let the hind-brain guide the in and out breaths and so achieve equilibrium in concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood-stream), we ‘invite’ the PNS to do its best work. If we are angry, anxious or depressed, we can become less so. Importantly, such a deliberate, ‘mindful’ process activates the frontal lobes of our conscious mind, thus optimising awareness, consequential thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and much more. We become more emotionally intelligent when we breath in such a manner.
So any time you are struggling, need to focus, want to calm down or be less anxious or angry, it starts with the breath. Consciously seeking to breath smoothly, naturally, rhythmically.
Emotional regulation and successful actions start with a ‘grounding’ or ‘centering’ breath. Practise with meditation or seek the guidance of others. If you have been struggling with compromised mental health, you will be glad to learn about the power of breath in our lives. Enjoy the most ‘free’ component on your journey to wellbeing.