Breathe Well to Live Well

Aug 31, 2023

Your breath and nervous system are closely connected. One influences the other. It goes both ways. It’s a unique process in your body because it’s controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It can also be under conscious control. Breathing happens without thinking about it (your ANS is in control). You can also jump in at any time and make it happen (your conscious mind is in control). Controlling the breath is one of the best ways to influence your nervous system. Shaping your breath is like having your hand on the control knob of your ANS. This is a big secret…the secret key to feeling less anxious and more awesome.

Slow, deep breathing is a powerful anti-stress tool. When you bring air down into the lower part of the lungs, where the oxygen exchange is most efficient: 

  • heart rate slows
  • blood pressure decreases
  • muscles relax
  • anxiety eases
  • the mind calms

This sends a signal to the whole body that there’s no emergency and it’s okay to chill out.

Watch a baby breathe and you’ll see a perfect, natural breath -- full, even and rhythmic. It looks like their whole body is breathing. Natural breathing patterns may become restricted or distorted due to chronic stress or trauma. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) then resets itself so this restricted, distorted way of breathing becomes automatic. Yikes! When you’re not controlling your breath, you want the breath to be open and unrestricted - naturally. The good news is that practicing tools for better breathing can help train the ANS to facilitate a healthier breath when it is running on autopilot. Sweet!

Anxious feelings can take your breath away, and not in a good way. Your breath is something you can manage. Shaping your breath directly affects the nervous system. The nervous system controls stress and anxious feelings. Change your breath and you can change your nervous system. It’s like learning to control the dials on the Stress-O-Meter. You can turn the stress down with longer, slower breathing. 

You can exercise your breathing system. It’s like taking your breath to the gym to get more fit. This also helps your brain and whole nervous system to be more fit too. Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) develops a set point. It currently may be set to “anxious”. You can change this set point with better breathing habits. Practice breathing techniques every day to improve your natural breathing habits. You can also do them when you start to feel anxious. It will be easier if you’re already used to doing them, so they are comfortable and familiar.

Here's a fun one to try:

Crocodile Breath

It’s common to hold a lot of tension in the belly. This makes it harder to take a full breath. Have you ever had someone say to you, “take a deep breath” and you find that you can’t? Tension in the tummy (abdomen) may be one reason. Not understanding how your breath works may be another. Crocodile Breath uses the floor so your whole belly gets feedback and can relax.

To be a Crocodile, lie on your belly. Stack one hand on top of the other and turn your head to rest one cheek on your stacked hands. Let your big toes touch and your heels fall away from center. As you breathe in, feel your whole belly spread out on the floor. As you breathe out, feel your whole body sink into the floor. Do this for a few minutes. After a few breaths, turn your head and rest the opposite cheek on the stacked hands. Focus on breathing out longer and slower than you breathe in. It’s soothing and quieting. You’re training your abdomen to relax and allow a full breath. This turns on the “rest and digest” side of your nervous system. And speaking of digesting, this is best done when you don’t have a full stomach. 

Do this one thing in the morning to start your day. You can do it when you get home from work or school. And, this will feel wonderful at the end of the day before bed. It’s best done on a firm surface. A carpeted floor, yoga mat or pad or a stack of blankets on a wood floor is ideal. Your bed is too squishy. Once you know Crocodile Breath, you can do it sitting up anywhere by placing your hand on your abdomen. 

If you’d like more tools for regulating your nervous system, check out Anxious to Awesome: A Practical Guide for the Whole Family.


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