It’s like clockwork. As I enter the Q&A portion of my training presentation, people are still trying to absorb all the new information that they have just been fed. They’ve heard about trends in well-being, unhappiness among Americans, and the years leading to the mental health crisis. They’ve learned about all the little things that compound and are negatively impacting our mental health. And then they’re hit with my “Five Building Blocks” of resilience… giving them many more things to think about moving forward.
And then I get it. The question that everyone wants to know:
Where do we begin?
It’s a tough one. By this time I’ve usually presented a variety of exercises and tools that they can use to help us better counteract the modern day stressors, as well as life’s inevitable unknowns. And frankly, depending on what is going on in each individual’s life, the answer may change. But I would say, if you were going to start anywhere, I would recommend starting with your breath, and learning how to use it to your benefit.
THE POWER OF THE BREATH
Our breath is a resource that is available to us at all times. And it is so much more than the physiological intake of oxygen. Conscious breathing, as practiced in mindfulness meditation, is a gateway to calm. A calm that is much needed in today’s world that often feels intensely chaotic.
Nervous that it’s almost your turn to speak? Use your breath. Someone’s cutting words upset you? Use your breath. Feeling that you’ve hit your breaking point and don’t have the bandwidth to take on one more thing? Use your breath. Heading in to ask your boss for a raise? Use your breath. There are an infinite number of circumstances in which our breath can help us.
How does the breath help us?
When we are feeling stressed about something, the sympathetic nervous system activates. This triggers “fight or flight” as our body prepares itself for the perceived threat. Our heart rate increases, stress hormones are released, and our muscles tense. When in this state, we become emotionally dysregulated, often reacting out of impulse and saying things we regret. More importantly, constant activation of this system causes chronic stress that could lead to lowered immunity and mental health issues.
By deepening and slowing your breathing, you activate the PARAsympathic nervous system and induce the relaxation response. This slows your heart rate, relaxes your muscles, lowers your blood pressure, and helps to calm your nervous system. You become more emotionally regulated, enabling you to respond thoughtfully versus react. You restore your body to its natural state of balance.
So how exactly do you breathe to calm?
There are a lot of controlled breathing techniques that can be used to calm the body, but I’ll share just one today. It’s called the 4-7-8 method, and it’s my go-to. It’s simple:
- Inhale through your nose for four counts.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. When exhaling, purse your lips to breathe out, as if you’re slowly blowing through a straw.
- Repeat cycle.
Breathing like this for five minutes can reduce your stress hormones and increase your state of calm. Practicing these breathing techniques in low-stakes moments will get you comfortable with the process, making it easier to “pull it out of your toolkit” in those stressful moments. Use it proactively, prior to an expectedly tense event or conversation, or reactively, when you find yourself in an uncomfortable place.
So as I say in my workshops… if you’re going to start anywhere, start here. Practice the breath that will save you from unnecessary stress and worry. Both your mind and body will thank you.