Breathing is important. Sounds ridiculously obvious, doesn’t it? If we don’t breathe, we die. As long as we’re alive, we breathe. What’s to think about, right?
Many of the healing arts make great use of breathwork. Often hypnotherapists will focus on inhalation and exhalation to help a client go deeper into hypnosis. In meditation, you’re encouraged to bring your attention back to your breath if your mind wanders. Even on those occasions when you’re feeling particularly stressed, you may notice yourself sighing somewhat heavily as though trying to correct something about the situation.
Because breathing is automatic, you probably don’t think about it much. However, the simple act of choosing how to breathe can be remarkably helpful in a number of ways. It’s all because of a small, almond-shaped part of the brain known as the amygdala.
The amygdala is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight mechanism. This mechanism was given to us because when we first showed up on the planet, everything was threatening to our lives. We wore no clothing, we had no shelter, and we walked around with creatures that might see us as little more than a snack. So we needed a system by which we could react automatically. Either we had to fight off whatever threatened our life or we had to run from it.
Fortunately, in the modern world, things are much safer. You’re no longer at constant risk of losing your life. Unfortunately, no one mentioned that to your amygdala, and so it sometimes triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism inappropriately. Panic, shock and other responses to lower-grade emergencies are examples.
When fight-or-flight is triggered, your body changes. Your pupils dilate to allow in more light. Your digestion turns off to conserve that energy. Your heart rate increases to pump your blood and provide energy to your limbs. You become less able to think clearly because the blood moves to another part of your brain. And your breathing changes: It becomes shallower and more rapid.
Perhaps you’re in a situation where you’ve received some bad news, either about your health or that of a loved one. Often what takes over in that moment is panic. It’s perfectly normal; likely anyone would experience it. But the truth is, at a moment like that, your life is not immediately threatened. Unfortunately, when you’re in this state of fight-or-flight, you’re more suggestible, so any negative news is magnified and it’s taken in as truth. Since you’re less able to think clearly, everything just seems bad.
Anytime you begin to worry or panic about something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future, you can benefit greatly simply by making a choice to take in a long, slow deep breath. If you do it a few times, even better. Many suggest breathing in through your nose, holding it for a few seconds, and exhaling through your mouth, but any type of deep, slow breathing will be helpful.
What happens when you breathe deeply is you override the fight-or-flight mechanism and its consequent bodily changes. You’re able to handle the situation more calmly. You find it’s easier to think clearly. And maybe you’ll even discover that the news isn’t as bad as it seemed to be when you experienced it in a panic.