Have you have ever been told to "just breathe" or "relax" while amidst a highly unpleasant emotional experience and found yourself becoming more agitated? Yeah, me too. Simply relaxing can be far more difficult than our peers suggest, despite the ease with which they arrived at that magical, instantly curative advice. And if you've experienced any degree of emotional invalidation throughout life, being told to breathe or to "just" do anything for that matter, only drives home further the feeling of social disconnect. This is because of our very nature as humans, in that we depend on safe, secure, and reciprocal interpersonal relationships for the sensation of being "alive". To exist as an individuated, yet connected identity within this reality, one must have an allocation of experiences in which others are communicating that they understand/are trying to understand what you are feeling, despite not being able to feel it themselves. And if the attempt to express your internal broadcast is not met with a certain degree of graciousness, the brain's defense mechanisms read a threat requiring more primal responses than what is needed to navigate the problem.
What do Primal Responses Do?
These primal responses, known as "fight-flight-freeze", drastically shift breath patterns and the flow of energy throughout our bodies. So here you are, being misunderstood in a manner that induces shallow breathing, while simultaneously being told to just breathe. And if you've panicked about anything before, you're aware of the momentum these attacks build rather quickly, and before you know it you've completely lost control. However, the seemingly impossible action of relaxing your breath to relax your mind and body isn't the wrong behavior to engage - it's nail on the head accurate. It's just that the average passerby or friend/family member is often unaware that the emotional state you're in is the deterrent to their suggestion, not any psychological fallacy in focusing on your breath in this case.
"Breath" and "Spirit"
So how do we make this advice more actionable for those of us that find it difficult to relax? First, let's take a look at the etymology and origins of the words "breath" and "spirit". The word "breath" comes from an Old English word meaning "to stir up, agitate", which is certainly an accurate depiction of the biological function of inhalation. The word "spirit" comes from the Latin, meaning "to blow". When we inhale, our lungs expand and contract in a way that resembles blowing up a balloon or inflating/deflating a sail - it's very windy (as anyone who has experienced asthma knows all too well). In essence, inhalation is the receiving of the environment that is bigger than yourself, and exhalation is the release of this back into the universe after a fundamental change from touring your body. It is here where we can see the correlation between breath, spirituality, and social connectivity.
What is the ANS?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating the body's unconscious activities, such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. It has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which speeds up heart rate and constricts blood vessels, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which does the opposite. The ANS is constantly at work, but our awareness of it depends on which branch is dominant at any given time. The PNS dominates during rest and relaxation, while the SNS dominates during times of stress or danger. When we're feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or panicky, our SNS is usually in overdrive, which is why deep breathing exercises are so effective in restoring balance. They activate the PNS, which slows the heart rate and calms the body. When the body begins to calm, the social engagement system (using language and our advanced neural capacity to solve problems and explore situations), can reason that if breathing with purpose continues, relaxation will occur.
3 Ways to Practice Deep Breathing
1. Diaphragmatic Breathing (Belly Breathing)
How to do it:
1) Sit upright in a chair with your back supported or on the floor with your knees bent
2) Close your eyes and let your shoulders fall away from your ears
3) Place one hand below your bellybutton and the other on your chest
4) Breathe in deeply through your nose and allow your belly to rise like a balloon being filled.
a. If you notice your chest/shoulders rising with the belly that’s okay, just focus the inhale to fill the belly MORE than the chest/shoulders. If the hand over your belly is further out than the hand on your chest, you’re good.
5) Notice the bottom hand rising and falling with your breath and exhale, slowly allowing your belly to deflate
*Repeat for 5-10 minutes.
*You can also try it lying on the floor with your feet pushed up against a wall
2.Long Exhale Breathing
How to do it:
1) Lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat
2) Place one hand on your belly and take a few relaxed breaths
3) Lengthen out the inhalation and exhalation until they're of equal length (4 seconds in, 4 seconds out)
4) After first set of 10 breaths with 4/4, increase to 4/8.
o You will need to lengthen the inhale the longer you wish the exhale to be. (5/10, 6/12, etc.) The point is to exhale for double your inhale time
*Repeat for 5-10 minutes
3.Bhramari (Humming Bee) Breathing
How to do it:
1) Breathe through both nostrils, keeping your lips closed
2) Inhale silently and then exhale making a humming sound (like a bee)
3) Allow your lips and face to vibrate with your exhales
*Continue for as long as you like up to half an hour
* If you want to level this exercise up, close your eyes and cover your ears with your hands. This will take away 2 of your senses and allow you to focus on the humming and your breath more directly.
The most important part of any breathing or relaxation practice is to practice the skills when you don’t need them to relax. When practicing from a baseline stress level, trust and confidence in your safety are more effectively built so the signals of danger doesn't need to shout so loud disrupting you from navigating the dynamic challenges of life.
Explore these breathing techniques, see which one feels good and allow yourself to Breathe.
Sean O'Connor is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future