I understand that not everyone is able to spend an hour each day meditating (although if you did, you would transform your health and your life!) but there is no excuse not to make a 10-minute per day commitment to breathing practice.
Breathing is one of these clever biological processes our body is programmed to do automatically, even when we are not aware of it. In fact, it is one of the primary functions of the body is to supply our cells with oxygen. It has to be automated (subconscious) because we would be in a lot of trouble if we had to think about it all the time. But we can also control our breathing if we choose to, and when we do it in the right way, we can influence our emotions, and of course our immune system and therefore our physical well-being.
I have many fantastic mind-transforming modalities at my disposal that I use for myself and working with clients but I always teach my clients breathing techniques because they are so incredibly powerful in creating a very quick emotional and physical change. For example, if somebody is having a panic attack, they can easily stop it with just consciously altering their breathing. This is because, at the moment of a panic attack the person is in fight-flight-freeze response which means the sympathetic nervous system is activated (characterised by: shallow breathing, accelerated heart rate, nausea, pale skin, etc.).
But here is a trick. If we can somehow manage to switch the nervous system from the sympathetic (stress) response to the parasympathetic (relaxation) response, the panic attack could not continue. You need to know that the nervous system has to be in one mode or the other. It cannot be in both at the same time. So how do we switch to the relaxation response? There are many ways but one of the quickest and most effective is to control your breathing. Make it slow and deep. Unless somebody puts their hand over your mouth or sits on your chest, you can always control your breathing!
To illustrate this further let me quote a study entitled ‘Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion’ confirming a link between breathing and emotional state. In this study, the participants were asked to watch video clips that were designed to elicit a number of different emotional states (sadness, happiness, anger, fear).
The researchers measured the participants’ breathing patterns as they were watching the videos. Interestingly but not surprisingly, when participants were exposed to imagery that elicited fear, their breathing was shallow and fast (stress response was activated). On the other hand, when they were exposed to “happy” imagery, the breathing changed to deep and slow.
In a follow-up experiment, another group of participants was asked to breathe in the “shallow-fast” and then “deep-slow” pattern. The participants were then asked to describe how they felt during the activity. Again, not surprisingly the participants experienced the emotions that corresponded with the breathing patterns they were asked to perform.
These days it is commonly accepted that controlled breathing has immediate positive impact on our mental as well as physical health. If you tune in, after a few deep, slow breaths you will observe your heart rate slowing down. This way of breathing also has positive long-term effects to our body. If you practice deep, slow breathing (what I call “floppy belly breathing”) regularly, you will train your body and your mind to become calmer, and remain calm even in stressful situations.
You may already know that our psychological well-being is linked to our immune system via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis. In other words our nervous system response has a direct impact on our immune response. I am sure you can appreciate that if you are in the sympathetic (stress) response for most of the day, this spells trouble in terms of your immune response which, if you have an autoimmune condition, is already out of balance. Using controlled, conscious breathing to bring yourself into relaxation response tells your mind all is well and the body responds accordingly.
Controlled breathing exercises are very effective in reducing the cortisol levels in the body, which when chronically elevated will cause damage to tissues. This includes the gut. So you could be putting energy into following the right dietary protocol and at the same time making your gut leaky because you not giving your mind and body a break from being in the stress response. Practicing conscious breathing is one of the ways of helping the body clear excess cortisol. You can also do it with exercise and various mind-expanding techniques.
This can be done standing, sitting or lying down. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Make sure you send the air right into your belly. It is important that you make your belly feel relaxed and “floppy”. Make sure you are not forcing the breath. Make it natural. When you have inflated your belly fully, start exhaling even more slowly than when you were breathing in. Once you have exhaled fully without forcing, you have completed the cycle.
Repeat this pattern of breathing for a few minutes. You may want to close your eyes to focus on it more but that is not at all necessary for it to be effective. If you find that you start to feel dizzy at any point, stop and continue again when you are ready. If you go dizzy, this only indicates your body is poorly oxygenated and you actually need to practice this more. If you practice for a few minutes daily, after a while you will no longer experience any dizziness.
If you have an autoimmune disease and would like a personalised approach to optimising your mindset, check out my PsychoHealthology Programme.