Close your eyes right now, exhale, relax for a moment; now, visualize being outdoors in the mountains; feel the warm sunshine on your body, take in and slowly breathe and smell the fresh, clean mountain air; see the blue sky, majestic pine trees; hear the call of the wind rustling through the forest floor, and all the wonder and beauty of nature that are everywhere in your mind’s eye. Now, look at the photo to your right/lower right and see the roaring lion; imagine this roaring dude all grown up. Now, mindfully, fully engage in visualizing this full grown puma, yes, a mountain lion; suddenly, from up ahead in your wooded image, charging straight toward you in your mind! Several hundred yards away from you, a puma, that’s right, a wild, hungry, ferocious, adult, several-hundred-pound beast of a mountain lion coming straight for you and you are all alone with no protection or weapon! This puma is coming at you from several hundred yards away in a full run; coming at you in charge and attack mode!! What happened to your breath right then? It suddenly started racing just a bit faster, didn’t it?
Current studies show that our breathing tells us and our brain how we feel and what we think about situations, people and events in life; and, our brain responds the only way it knows how: chemically. Fight or flight hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol can be produced for a real or imagined threat, such as the puma. Feel-good hormones such as dopamine and seratonin can also be produced on demand to reduce stress, relieve pain and elevate our mood; we just have to know how to turn on the valve, open the spigot and get those happy hormones pumping.
Exercise: Regular and moderate exercise is proven to increase the levels of the mood elevating hormones.
Meditation: In as little as one session, meditation is shown to reduce anxiety and pain. 10-minutes every day is all we need to relieve stress, induce happy hormones and become more mindful in life. Daily max: 60 minutes. All time periods in between are excellent; do what you can regularly, daily, even if it’s only a minute, to condition and train your brain.
Relaxation Breathing: Activates the vagus nerve; the switch that controls the goods.
How our breath controls our brain, and, therefore, our stress, anxiety, depression and energy
Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary function in the body; breath will come, but we can manipulate it. We can hold it, which we unconsciously do during a trauma; we can breathe shallow and rapid, like prey; we can draw the breath in slowly when resting and exhale as slowly as possible to stimulate all the relaxation responses.
In an article titled, Breathing alters perception, by Jon Lieff, M.D., he tells us that self-observation alters perceptions. The fact that breathing rates are able to alter perceptions may be the basis of powerful meditation techniques using self-observation of the breath. Only recently is it becoming clear how breathing alters perception.
This research shows that breathing rates bind together different senses through synchronization of brain circuits, and is critical in the integration of perception.
Breathing involves complex muscular events controlled by the vagus nerve and the motor cortex.
As well as unconscious chemical regulation, it is also clear that emotions, stress and perceptions have a major impact on breathing rate. While fear and stress increase the breathing rate, conscious control of breathing is effective in stress reduction, relaxation and meditation.
In an article titled, Breathe deeply to activate vagus nerve, we learn that:
‘Research shows that during relaxed abdominal breathing, such as in the Basic Relaxation Breath described below, brain waves also show a pattern of relaxation. Poor heart rate variability (HRV) has been linked with increased mortality after a heart attack, and has also been shown to be linked with depression, anger, and anxiety.
Research has found that proper breathing can improve HRV and reduce immune activation. Breathing disorders, from asthma to tuberculosis, from emphysema to interstitial lung diseases, have been linked with an overactive immune system. The immune system is not the only system to benefit from proper breathing. The brain benefits as well.’
And, science is finding new evidence every day that our perceptions drive our biology; when we imagine and rehearse in our mind all the worst-case scenarios that a situation in life might present, our brain responds with the corresponding chemical. Fear-based thoughts produce adrenaline and we become physically anxious – our body thinks it’s preparing for battle. It has no opinion about whether the threat is real or imagined.
The bottom line: when we consciously and mindfully focus on our breathing, a rhythmic pattern of healthy heart rate variability and healthy immune function result. And that means a longer and healthier life.
Train the brain to manage pain through proper breathing
The human mind processes one thing at a time; it’s called ‘top priority.’ If you focus on the rhythm of your breathing, you’re not focused on the pain.
The switch that decides which hormone to pour is called the the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the nerve that comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response.
Abdominal breathing activates the vagus nerve and triggers a relaxation response. The relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response, is necessary for our body to heal, repair, and renew.
The Basic Relaxation Breath: activating the vagus nerve
Breathing exercises help because give us something to focus on and induce relaxation. This is a great breathing exercise and potent; several consistent repetitions are enough for the brain to begin producing feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin.
Inhale and exhale through the nose only; keep chest still. Bring the breath slowly down into the abdomen and inflate the abdomen on the inhale, and deflate the abdomen on the exhale; the exhale wants to be long and slow; longer and slower than the inhale – up to twice as long; however, if you’re grabbing for the inhale at the end of the exhale, shorten the exhale next time through until the transition from exhale to inhale is smooth.
Exhale for a boost of strength, balance and pain relief
The moment we anticipate pain, most of us tend to stop breathing and hold our breath. Breath holding activates the fight/flight/freeze response – adrenaline and cortisol – and this increases the sensation of pain, anxiety, or fear. Exhale at the moment of pain or anticipation of pain and your body will more quickly reduce the sensation of pain.
In yoga and certain strengthening exercises, we have to hold our bodies motionless in a challenging fashion, such as bird dog, or downward dog; as we feel ourselves begin to weaken or lose our balance, exhale! A quick exhale gives us a few more moments of strength, balance and relief from pain.
In another article, we learn that exhaling is twice as important as inhaling. Yes, the inhale is important, and, as many through the filtered nostrils as possible.
The exhale is when the heart slows down; toxins release through the exhale; carbon dioxide, which, if left in the body, would kill us, releases through the exhale. The exhale is how our body releases what needs releasing. This is why colds purge through our respiratory systems through coughing, sneezing and releasing phlegm.
Step #1: Listen to your breathing; Step #2: Use this info and adjust
Worry is a misuse of the imagination; we are imagining horrible scenarios. If you’re not being chased by a puma and nothing bad is going on right now in a given situation, then, stop acting like it; stop breathing like it; balance your breathing. This is mindfulness.
Train your brain! Turn it around: use the power of the imagination to imagine positive scenarios and outcomes as an antidote to worry.
We exhale to transition; to shake off one condition and clear our energetic slate for the next condition. You know those theatrical sighs, such as when we plop into a big, juicy recliner at the end of a long day? Or, you finish a really long paper at school and you just want to go ‘blow off some steam!’ These are cues from the body to exhale, release and relax. Listen to these cues, the body can tell us so much. Notice what makes you exhale and do it…again, and again.