Take a deep breath.
This was my go-to stress-coping strategy for decades. We hear it all the time, right? Take a deep breath.
So when, after having four kids, I felt like I was drowning every day, when the weight of the world was just too much, I opened my mouth, and I took a deep breath. And another. And another. And I kept taking deep breaths because I didn’t know what else to do. And when I started feeling like I couldn’t get enough air, I just tried harder… more deep breaths… more gasping for air… more forcefully. And then the panic set in. And still I opened my mouth, sucked in my belly, and gasped for air.
It was a long time before I finally realized what my body was trying to tell me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get enough air. That’s not why my deep breaths never seemed to satisfy. The problem wasn’t that I needed more air. The problem was that I needed to exhale.
When we are under stress, our nervous systems cannot distinguish between a financial crisis or a bear attack. The response is the same: fight-or-flight mode. When the threat is more abstract, as most modern crises are, rather than actually life-threatening, we need a way to tell our nervous systems that the fight-or-flight response isn’t necessary.
What happens when we inhale excessively (particularly through the mouth) is actually a heightening of the fight-or-flight mode. The sympathetic nervous system kicks into higher gear, increasing heart rate, constricting blood vessels, diverting oxygen to the limbs for flight, and halting digestive activities. The result, for some, is felt as panic.
One of the ways we can tell our bodies that the stress-response is unwarranted is through our breath. Exhale. When we take the time to consciously exhale and extend the length of that exhale, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This reverses the fight-or-flight response and allows the body to return to rest-and-digest mode, slowing the heart-rate, reducing blood pressure, allowing oxygen to flow more freely throughout the internal organs. When we don’t exhale enough CO2, the body becomes acidic. This can contribute to a variety of physical and emotional difficulties. Exhaling allows the body’s pH levels to balance. (<— And this has me theorizing that morning sickness could be partially relieved by proper breathing.) The brain/body, in many ways, follows the breath. Change your breath, and you change your life.
Taking deep breaths is a good thing… as long as the exhale is just as deep and long (or slightly longer) than the inhale. And as long as the breaths are coming in and out the nose (or through one nostril or a curled tongue as we do in many yogic breathing exercises). Many of us (including myself) have spent most of our lives breathing backwards… paradoxically (sucking in the belly on the inhale and relaxing the belly on the exhale). Fill yourself like a balloon, starting with the belly and then moving upward. Change your breath, and you change your life.
I’m sharing this because learning to exhale sufficiently and properly has made a huge impact on my mental and physical health. It is something I call upon daily to manage day-to-day stress, and in times of crisis it enables me to remain more calm and clear-headed. When my husband hears me exhaling, loud, long, and deep, he knows what it means. It’s a cue to him that I’m releasing some built-up stress in an effort to stay calm. His response is often something like, “Everything’s OK.” Exactly what I usually need to hear.
So if you find yourself overwhelmed, in crisis, having a panic attack, or managing labor pains, you can signal to your brain and body that it’s OK to relax. Exhale deeply. Blow it out. Imagine the stress releasing with each second of your exhale. Squeeze all of the air out completely as you bring your navel toward your spine. It seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but exhaling more deeply will actually better enable your lungs to oxygenate your blood and eliminate toxins. If we do not adequately empty our lungs, we can’t adequately fill them either. The more deeply you exhale, the more satisfying your next inhale will be.