“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again” - Thich Nat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
Although the holiday season is filled with joy, it can also come with added stress. With extra social engagements on the calendar on top of our already packed schedules it is all to easy to become overwhelmed and ungrounded. One sure fire way to ward off the overwhelm is to connect to your breath. Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that can be controlled consciously and unconsciously. For many of us, we rush through our days without placing any conscious attention on the breath - totally unaware of the stress we are creating in our bodies due to our refusal to pause.
I am a life long, daily anxiety survivor. For most of my life, I thought that it was my anxiety that effected my breath. However, through the practice of yoga, pranayama, mindfulness, and breathwork therapy I have discovered that my breath effects my anxiety as well. Proper breathing has been the number one tool I use in moving from states of overwhelm to calm.
Lets go over some brief science on the connection between the way we breathe and the effect it has on the body. When we are anxious, overwhelmed, and/or fearful we tend to take short, shallow breaths. This creates the “fight or flight” response in our brain, sending the body into a sympathetic state. As a result, the body begins to release more of the stress hormone, cortisol, into the blood stream. At times this can be a good thing. For example - if we have to run from a bear in the mountains, our nervous system benefits from being the sympathetic state in order to get it to preform in ways that will get us to safety. However, when it spikes due to stressors from our work or relationships it becomes more detrimental than beneficial. Higher cortisol levels, especially for prolonged periods of time, are linked to anxiety, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and adrenal fatigue - just to name a few. It could also be argued that stress can lead to addiction as some may turn to drugs, alcohol, sugar, or exercise to help “calm us down”.
The problem with reaching for these bandaids for stress is that it doesn’t change anything in the body. In fact, the tools we use to cope often end up adding to the stress. This is why, for me, I have found that during periods of heightened stress, the first thing I need to do is take a big slow deep breath. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic or "rest and digest" part of the nervous system. Simply put, slow deep breaths send a signal to the body that it is safe and all is well.
There are many different, simple breathing techniques to help reduce stress. I find a 4 part breath or just simple slow deep breaths work best for me. It takes me to a place where I am able to be more responsive to my circumstances rather than reactive. Practices like yoga and meditation are good places to start to bring awareness to conscious breathing. As you move through the holiday season, I encourage you to take breaks throughout your day, whether you are feeling stressed or not, to slow down and connect to your breath. Over time, you will experience its power in calming the mind and keeping the body in an overall healthier state.