Why Does Everyone Tell Me To Breathe?

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The concepts of deep breathing and meditation have taken off in the last decade. I know I may live in a bit of a bubble because I study human behavior, but the idea of clearing the mind of chatter and clutter seems to be everywhere. In the last few years, my inclination that focus and clarity are taking over have been supported when potential clients call my office. Often, the conversation starts something like this, “Before we go any further, you don’t just want me to breathe and do that meditation crap do you?” My first thought is a loud and proud, “Yes, do the breathing and meditation. It is awesome!” But, even though I think it’s awesome, I do realize there is much more to therapy than a practice of mindfulness. But wow is it easier to work through your emotions with a clear and focused mind.

The Journey

My early education was in math and computer science. My favorite class in college was actually called “Logic”. Loved that class. There was no need for emotion or empathy. If it wasn’t logical, it was wrong. That was my 20’s and that was during the 80’s and early 90’s. Not exactly when I would consider mindfulness and minimalism as being the source of happiness. Now, just like fashion, the spiritual ideas of the 60’s seems to be making a somewhat updated return.

What is this breathing thing all about? I know for sure that breathing is something I do poorly when I’m stressed. It is shallow and at times frantic without my awareness. Honestly, my go to thought is to smack someone if they tell me to “just breathe” when I am in the middle of being angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, or any of the other daily emotions. However, I admit that I do feel much better when I breathe with focus. I am more clear in thought allowing me to weigh my decisions from the viewpoint of my true self and not from fear? But why is breathing so important?

The Science

Why is it when you breathe deeply everything around you appears to slow down? What is the science behind it? Our body’s nervous system plays a huge role using breathing as a guideline for action. The nervous system is made up of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). I like to think of the idea of a Sprint as the SNS and Pause as the PNS. The Sprint part of your nervous system is the part that increases awareness, motivation, and unfortunately stress symptoms. The Pause part of your nervous system counteracts the Sprint by inducing relaxation. The Pause reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. The Pause also helps with all those nasty stress-induced stomach issues. As the saying goes, “Rest and Digest.”

Deep breathing is an intrinsic part of the equation when it comes to Sprinting and Pausing. When you breathe in, the Sprint part of the nervous system is activated. When you breathe out, the Pause part of the nervous system is activated. The goal of a stable mood is not to turn off the sprint, but to find a balance. Just like my mother said, “All things in moderation.” When you breathe in, your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature rise and when you breathe out, they lower. Therefore, deep breathing can create a balanced sensation of motivation and calm.

Simple, But Not Easy

Breathing seems so simple in theory, but it is the first thing to go when we are stressed. Once our Sprint instinct gets activated, our breathe becomes shallow which elevates our heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature while also reducing our ability to recognize our emotions and reason through our situation. This ability for humans to kick in our Sprint instinct is part of what allowed us to be fit enough to avoid extinction. The Sprint instinct takes over when we are faced with danger or even perceived danger. This was great when humans were in danger of becoming the lunch of a larger animal, but it is a bit overkill when our stress is coming from an unfriendly post on Facebook.

I am grateful that human existence has progressed enough to not actively fear being eaten. However, the reactions of our bodies are in a heightened state continuously with the current trend of never being bored. Even though many tasks are easier today with technology, it is not a simpler time. We tend to soothe with technology. It takes direct intention to learn to wait. Walk into any situation where there is a line and watch how quickly the phones come out. I am in a complete slug-fest with my learned instinct to immediately look up any random fact that comes to mind. “Wow, Arnold Schwarzenegger looks short in this movie. I wonder how tall he is. Hello Google.” The Google search then sends me down the rabbit hole of information until I miss the whole movie. Living in a world of constant stimulation is simply not healthy.

The Answer

So, the answer is, “Yes”. If you come to my office for an appointment, we will at some point talk about the benefits of deep breathing and meditation. Not because I think your reason for coming to an appointment can be fixed with breathing, but rather that a clear and balanced mind is the best foundation for contemplation and change.

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