Reducing Stress with the Breath
“We are taking in the infinite with each breath. All the stars, everything in the known universe, have contributed to the air that we breathe.”
Risa Kaparo, Ph.D., Awakening Somatic Intelligence
Mind-body practices almost always begin with the breath. The breath is always with us, but how often are we aware of it? Day in and day out, we are carried along with the gentle rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. When we need a moment of calm, we can return to the breath. We cannot breathe in the past or in the future. We can only breathe NOW, in this present moment.
In many traditions, the breath is linked to the soul or life energy. The word “respiration” clearly links breath and spirit. Whether you attach a sacred meaning to the breath or not, it is a powerful tool for connecting with your body and calming your mind.
I particularly like that in the medical literature, the in-breath is “inspiration,” and the out-breath is “expiration.” I like to imagine that with the in-breath, I am taking in new energy, and on the out-breath, I am releasing that which I no longer need.
As I shared in the previous video, the breath is also one of the only life-maintenance activities over which we have a significant amount of control. We may not be able to consciously control our heart rate or digestion, but without any formal training you’ve probably been able to change your own breathing patterns many times during your life.
You’ve probably noticed that different emotional states have different breathing patterns. When we are relaxed, our breathing slows, and tends to be “deeper” — from the belly or diaphragm. When we are tense or scared, our breathing rate increases, and it tends to be more shallow and concentrated in the lungs and upper body.
In a particularly fascinating study, researchers taught participants different patterns of breathing — one associated with states of happiness, and one associated with states of sadness. But they didn’t tell the participants what “style” of breathing they were learning; they just thought they were learning a “technique.” Sure enough, people who were taught “sad” breathing ending up feeling sad; those taught “happy” breathing felt happier! Simply breathing “happily” makes you happy.
This brings us to a core theme of this course: our body is constantly sending information to the brain about how we feel. We can alter our mind state through our body and breath!
This is particularly helpful because mind-based, cognitive strategies don’t often work when we are stressed out. We probably KNOW we don’t need to worry…. or that our concerns are unfounded…. but we still get anxious. When these top-down strategies don’t work, we can turn to the “bottom-up” strategies of the body.
In the next few lessons, I am going to share with you several different breathing exercises that you can use to calm down and reduce stress.