The ONLY thing I had was my breath...
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Standing in a house in Tofo, Mozambique. Boiling hot, with sweat pooling into the small of my back and dripping down the backs of my knees, in the midst of a raging fight with my then-boyfriend, who was insisting that my version of reality was not the truth and that I was crazy.
I look back at that very moment of my life and remember how I believed him. I thought I was crazy. The sweat was pouring off my body, my mind was racing with a million thoughts a second, my hands shook and I could not catch my breath for the sobbing. I thought to myself, for the thousandth time that day, “Am I losing my mind?”
I remember one horrendous moment that I was sat in the corner of the spare room, throat raw from shouting, curled up in the foetal position with my hands over my ears. Weeping and rocking back and forth, convinced that I had, in fact, lost my mind.
This period of my life was when anxiety had her vicious claws in me and I did not understand our relationship at all. I was isolated from my friends and family, in a different country, in an abusive relationship.
The ONLY thing I had was my breath.
In the midst of those panic attacks, the only way I was able to calm myself was by taking control of my breath, by consciously forcing myself to breathe in and breathe out. By extending my exhalation to calm my heart and try to get me out of that fight or flight state.
I learnt A LOT in that period of my life, about how powerful breath control is and how it, and setting iron-clad boundaries, can LITERALLY save your life. Luckily for me, I have incredible parents who helped me out of that situation and I now look back and see that ex-boyfriend as one of my greatest teachers. Don’t get me wrong, I never want to see him again, but I am so grateful for the lessons I learnt through that relationship.
Once I was consciously and deeply committed to healing myself from that traumatic experience, I kept coming back to how powerful the breath is and how much controlled-breathing helped me when anxiety made herself comfortable in my mind and in my body. I started to explore this simple yet amazingly powerful tool we have at our disposal. I am so grateful and excited that science is now finally catching up with the ancient philosophy and wisdom of Yoga by showing that controlled, conscious breathing calms the nervous system and gives you the ability to switch your sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system off and turn your parasympathetic (calm and restful) nervous system on.
Breathing is the most natural thing that we do. We breathe in, we breathe out, we are alive.
But most of us take our breath for granted. Controlled or conscious breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to calm down. Slowing the breath helps to slow the racing thoughts and calm the heart.
A little bit about the autonomic nervous system, which is subdivided into two divisions: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Both of these systems control the same group of body functions, but they have opposite effects on the functions that they regulate. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect and relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high energy functions. The effects of the parasympathetic nervous system can be summarized by the phrase 'rest and digest'.
In his article for Forbes, David DiSalvo says, “The science of breathing stands on quite ancient foundations. Centuries of wisdom instructs us to pay closer attention to our breathing, the most basic of things we do each day. And yet, maybe because breathing is so basic, it’s also easy to ignore.” He goes on to explain that there are a number of studies being conducted that confirm what we’ve known for centuries - controlling your breathing calms your brain. These studies are confirming that breathing regulates your blood pressure. Using controlled breathing can lower blood pressure and decrease the heart rate, which may lower the risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm and generally decreases stress on blood vessels (a big plus for cardiovascular health). DiSalvo says that counting breaths taps into the brain’s emotional control regions. A recent study showed that controlling breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain”, particularly in brain regions related to emotion. He also states that controlled breathing may boost the immune system and improve energy metabolism. If accurate, the results support the conclusion that controlled breathing isn't only a counterbalance to stress, but also valuable for improving overall health.
In their article Proper Breathing Brings Better Health, Scientific American says: “In Latin languages, spiritus is at the root of both “spirit” and “respiration.” Pranayama (breath retention) Yoga was the first doctrine to build a theory around respiratory control, holding that controlled breathing was a way to increase longevity. When you are feeling calm and safe, at rest, or engaged in a pleasant social exchange, your breathing slows and deepens. You are under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a relaxing effect. Conversely, when you are feeling frightened, in pain, or tense and uncomfortable, your breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. The sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s various reactions to stress, is now activated.
The method of cardiac coherence was developed based on the understanding that slow, deep breathing increases the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of the parasympathetic nervous system; the vagus nerve controls and also measures the activity of many internal organs. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, calmness pervades the body: the heart rate slows and becomes regular; blood pressure decreases; muscles relax. When the vagus nerve informs the brain of these changes, it, too, relaxes, increasing feelings of peacefulness. Thus, the technique works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms.
In addition, paying attention to breathing causes most people to slow it down and to deepen it, which as I have mentioned, is soothing. Cognitive resources are limited, and so when individuals concentrate on breathing, they are not thinking about their worries. Those who practice mindfulness learn to notice when their attention drifts away from breathing and goes back to their concerns. They train themselves to return periodically to their breathing. This refocusing has a relaxing effect on anyone and helps to combat ruminative thinking in people who have anxiety or depression, especially those who are particularly prone to negative thoughts that run in a loop."
A couple of nights ago I had a headache from hell, caused by an ear infection. I was in SO much pain that in the middle of the night I ended up folded over the toilet, sweating profusely, my body trying to expel whatever was making it so sore. I got to a point where I was on the verge of collapsing into a panic attack. In the midst of it, my very calm voice reminded me to breathe, so I did exactly that. I breathed deeply, extended my exhalation and calmed my heart rate. I used my breath to shut down that fight/flight response and reset my nervous system. It was incredibly powerful at that moment to know that I have control over my body, my mind, my nervous system and over my reality.
It fascinates me that we intrinsically know that this science is correct. That when you’re panicked, you know that a deep breath will calm you down. Your body is already aware of these healing practices we have access to...we sometimes just have to convince our minds of how powerful they actually are. Once we realise and learn this information, incorporating deep, controlled breathing into our lives is pretty simple. You always have your breath with you so you also have access to these healing techniques.
Next time you’re fuming in traffic, fighting with your partner, arguing with your kids or on the verge of a panic attack, I encourage you to focus on your breath. Consciously take control of your breathing, extend your exhalation longer than your inhale and...just breathe.
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