So what is the big deal about breath? Why do meditation, yoga, and so many more heath and awareness practices emphasize breath? Is stress eating real? What is the science behind it?
I am going to answer these questions and more in this 3 post series and give you a three awesome and simple breathing practices to try at home so you can start experiencing the benefits of reduced stress and anxiety, and so many other great benefits that come along with proper breath.
Breath is our bridge between the conscious and the unconscious.
What do I mean by that? Most of the the time we breathe without thinking about it. It is unconscious. Our bodies take care of it for us. And if we were to hold our breathe to try and stop this autonomic system we would eventually pass out so that our bodies could take over again and bring essential oxygen to our blood and organs.
And yet, we can choose to bring conscious awareness to our breath. We can control how we breathe. And when we do, we can communicate so much to our autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that often feels out of our control, and is considered the unconscious nervous system.
Our breath becomes the bridge between the mind and the body.
Do you ever feel like you get something intellectually, in your mind, but you just can't get your body to listen and do what you want it to do? What about when your mind is racing and you are telling yourself, "Calm down. Calm down. CALM DOWN!" but it only seems to be making things worse? Breath has the power to communicate with our autonomic, or unconscious nervous system, in a way that just our thoughts cannot. It can slow down heart rate, lower blood pressure, relax pupil dilation, and put us into the parasympathetic, rest and repair mode.
Ok, time for a really quick Nervous System 101: Our nervous system has two main parts:
The Central Nervous System (CNS), which is controlled by our conscious thinking mind.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which controls all the unconscious, automatic processes of our body, including breathing, pumping blood, and digestion to name just a few.
Within the ANS we have the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Think of the sympathetic nervous system as the red zone, our fight/flight/freeze response. And the parasympathetic nervous system as the green zone, our rest, digest, and repair state.
The red zone, our fight or flight response, is driven by adrenaline. And it was what kept us alive for thousands of years when there was a true physical threat, like a bear.
But in our modern times it is often triggered by things other than a physical threat. Caffeine and other stimulants triggers adrenaline production. And a perception of stress triggers adrenaline. When I say perception, I mean whether or not you feel stressed. So for one person, that feeling of stress might be triggered by a long to do list, while for another they may thrive on being busy but it is financial or health concerns that tip them into the red zone. And sometimes we need to be in that red zone to do what we need to do.
But when we are chronically in the red zone it starts to cause health problems. It becomes hard to get good, restorative sleep. Our bodies crave quick, easy calories like sugar and carbs and burn readily available glucose because, well if you were running from a bear, you would need quick fuel! And it wants to store fat for the potential food shortage that such a stressful situation may bring! Our blood is directed to our limbs, ready to run or fight, and away from our digestive system, making proper digestion and absorption of nutrients difficult. And with no actual physical exertion required the adrenaline in our bodies creeps up and up and up and has no where to go. No release valve. This is why exercise can be a great stress release. But then if we jump back on the stress train and drink more coffee after we excercise we stay in the red zone. And on a cellular level our bodies are enflamed, and this over time, can cause serious health issues.
So how do we bring out body back into the green zone? You guessed it. The breath. And less caffeine and other stimulants.
In my next post learn the specifics of why breath works and what kind of breath you need to do to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and allow your body a chance to rest, repair, and digest.