This month, Lucy Parker from FLOW explains how to establish simple habits that make you more mindful about your breathing, so you can regulate your nervous system and keep your mind clear
Do you often catch yourself taking a big sigh out? Perhaps after sending a difficult email, after finding the lost car keys, or typically when taking a pair of uncomfortable shoes off at the end of the day. We sigh, aaahhh…. That’s better we think.
But the thing is that this sigh is a sign that you’ve been holding your breath, which in turn may suggest that, at best you’re distracted and, at worse anxious. That sigh proves to you that you need to be more mindful of how you breathe to help keep your nervous system well-regulated and your mind calm. So, what can we do about it?
It’s funny how many times people say to me “I don’t know how to breathe”. My instant answer is always, “Of course you do, you’re here now breathing perfectly well.” The skill lies in learning why conscious breathing is so very important for our mental health and adopting better habits because of this newfound understanding.
Our bodies are designed to last a long while without food, a day or so without water but only for a few seconds without air. It’s no wonder that our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is hardwired to react badly to poor breathing habits. If we are continuously holding our breath, breathing too quickly, or holding our tummies in as we breathe, we’re sending alarm signals to our ANS that things are not as they should be. This can set off a host of automatic chain reactions that may result in physical, mental, or emotional disorders such as disease, anxiety, panic or pain.
On average a person breathes between 12 – 20 breaths per minute (BPM). The slower and more consciously a person breathes can have a profound impact on their ANS and allow for homeostasis to return. We also find that many people have forgotten the unique and important role of the nose in breathing, allowing for optimum gas exchange to occur.
If you feel that your breath has become laboured, fast, shaky, restricted, or shallow, give these top tips a go.
Find yourself in a calm, quiet and comfortable place, lying down or sitting up. Set a timer and make sure you’ll not be interrupted. Rest your hands on your belly and let your arms and shoulders relax.
Now bring your awareness to your breath. Once you’ve noticed it, take a few natural breaths. Enjoy the feeling of the inhale and exhale. What do you notice? Which do you prefer, in or out?
Do you use your nose at all, and if so, when?
Now, imagine you have a balloon under your hands, inside your belly. As you breathe in the balloon fills up and as you breathe out it empties. Settle a while, filling and emptying your balloon until the time is up.
Go Deeper – Coherent Breathing
After a few rounds of balloon breathing, begin to count the length of time it takes you to breathe in and then the length of time it takes to breathe out. Use a steady metronome counting pace. It might be something around three, four, or five on the inhale and the same, or slightly different on the exhale.
Once you’ve noticed the count for a few breaths, decide on the number that is most comfortable for you right now. Once you have your number, begin to breathe to this number on every breath you take. Importantly, guide the number to be the same as you breathe in and out.
Once you’ve repeated this for a minute or two, add one number to both the inhale and the exhale.
Let’s say you start breathing in and out to four, next, slow the breath down to five in and five out. Now, you’re breathing at a rate of six BPM: you’ve halved your breath rate down and you’ve kicked your ANS back into harmony. Great job!
This super-simple breathing technique is called coherent breathing and has some pretty amazing stats to support its mighty power in regulating our nervous system and bringing us to a place of balance, coherence, and calm.