Posted on May 31, 2023 by Emily Forbes
Recently, I (Emily) was invited to a corporate client to lead a weekly mindfulness/breathwork session, to promote Mindful in May. Breathing is usually regulated through the autonomic nervous system but we also have the ability to control it consciously. Different states of being have different breathing patterns, for example, when we are stressed the breath tends to be shorter, shallower and faster. By taking control of the breath we have the ability to adjust our physical, mental, and emotional state.
Modern day life is stressful. For the majority of people it is a low level but constant amount stress which we might be unaware of (until we get a big warning – like a health condition). The pressures of looking after a family, driving in traffic, notifications pinging, working/paying bills, deadlines, even organising a holiday! These things can all dysregulate our nervous system and we get stuck on fight or flight response. We are shaky and snappy or are constantly tired and never have enough energy. Our ancestors would use the fight and flight (sympathetic nervous system) to hunt/run away from danger but then would be able to rest into their environment (rest and digest – parasympathetic nervous system). Staying stuck in a sympathetic state is where we can start to experience ill-health due to the rise in heart rate, breathing, blood-pressure and stress-hormones. So, I would say that it is imperative to learn techniques to help regulate the nervous system and reduce stress.
Here are some of the practices which I covered which you can experiment with at home, or in the office, or anywhere really.
Ideally, find somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. But like I said, you can practice anywhere. Being out in nature will have extra regulating benefits. Before you start, become aware of your current state of being – are you feeling stressed/anxious/depressed? What are the signs and symptoms which tell you this – tight chest/belly, feeling like you’re “in your head”, narrow focus, short, shallow breaths/through the mouth/in the chest, holding the breath. We don’t need to judge or try to change anything, first step is awareness.
Set a timer for 5 minutes. You can close your eyes or keep them open with the gaze soft. Drop your awareness down into your body, noticing the contact points of your sit-bones/feet on the chair/ground. Don’t force the breath, this adds more tension. Bring relaxation into the body to create more space for the breath.
- Breath awareness: nothing to change or do, simply watch the breath come and go. Notice all the qualities of the breath. Where does it flow? What’s its rhythm? Which muscles can you feel working? Can you sense your heartbeat at the same time? When you notice the mind has wandered, bring it back to the breath. Notice the changes as you breathe.
- Coherence breathing: 5 to 6 breaths per minute (6sec inhale/exhale or 5sec inhale/exhale). Inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the nose or pursed lips.
- Box/square breathing: through the nose, inhale for 4s, hold for 4s, exhale for 4s and hold for 4s. A breath technique used by Navy SEALS, firefighters and first responders, to help clear the mind, and gain focus and regulate heart rhythm and calming the system.
- Breath and movement: The basis of many yoga and Tai Chi practices, flowing with breath and movement as a mediation. The movements don’t need to be big, if you were just sat at your desk, you could breathe turning your head or taking a seated cat/cow stretch.
- Sighing breath: inhale through the nose, comfortably filling the lungs, pausing, but then inhaling again and release the breath through the mouth. Research into this breath technique has shown that 5mins of practice is more effective than 20-30min of mindfulness meditation at reducing stress and anxiety.
- Alternate nostril breathing: Take a cleansing breath in and out. Using your right hand, the thumb blocks the right nostril as you slowly breathe in through the left, then use one finger to block the left nostril and breathe out the right. Inhale right, block right, exhale left, inhale left. Continue this cycle for a few minutes before finishing with the exhale through the left nostril. Again, this breath can help us to focus and slow down, calming the nervous system and bring a felt sense of balance to body and mind.
For most benefits, you want to build a consistent practice, even if it’s 5 minutes a day, or even one big sigh of relief can help when needed. Explore the different breaths to discover your favourites. Awareness and relaxation are your starting points. Just breathe!