Stress and Its Deconstruction through Simple Breath Control

You live in a suburban Canadian area. Today you’re driving along upon a clear road.

You feel stressed. So much to do! Can’t even visualize getting it all done. Wishing you hadn’t committed to that project, and barely able to contain your anticipation of that warm-weather holiday you have planned for a month or so out.

And then, you get stuck behind a pokey driver who gets through the intersection on a yellow and you are left having to stop at yet another red light. You start to tap, even pound, on your steering wheel. All kinds of thoughts rush through your brain, from blaming yourself for not getting an earlier start to criticizing the other people on the road for just being there. The thoughts don’t stop there, though. If you were paying attention, you would start to notice that you are blaming the traffic engineers and politicians for not better planning and funding the transportation system, and even feeling resentful of your clients and people with whom you work.

You remember, if you’re lucky, what your counselor told you, what you’ve read in “O” magazine, or what you’ve learned in yoga class: Get into your body, now! It will get you into the moment – – – the true, unadulterated moment in which your mind is not able to indiscriminately fabricate all sorts of nonsense that causes you to suffer unduly.

Anger, anxiety and panic are natural physiological states. . .

Or maybe, situation above notwithstanding, for some unknown reason you have a palpitating heart. Shallow breath. Wanting to jump out of your own skin.

. . . gone wrong.

Tiger attack? Probably not. Panic attack? Possibly. (Could also be out-of-whack hormones.)

Brain research show us that similar physiologic reactions happen whether you are being attacked by a tiger or by a set of  nerves.

Rote reactions can breed more of the same

What we know is that it’s really difficult to simply stay with this intensely uncomfortable set of sensations. You’d do almost anything to get away, to be rid of feeling like this.You could go back to the thinking mind, letting your mind fabricate even more justification for your fear or anger, setting off another cycle of physical, emotional and mental responses.

Mindfulness is one way to diffuse the chain reaction

Or, you could continue to sit with the uncomfortable feelings. This is the “mindfulness” approach and it can be quite revealing, as well as therapeutic.When you stay with them long enough, you notice that the sensations change. They morph. Sometimes they become less intense and even disappear! Somehow, they just aren’t as personal. Ultimately, I think this approach is the ultimate. Nothing beats it in the long run.

But conscious work with the breath usually is more accessible with faster results

But, if your feelings are very intense and you are needing to go about your day, working with your breath might be a little more accessible. Shallow, rapid breathing is a sign that the sympathetic (“fight-or-flight-or-freeze”) nervous system is predominant. Purposeful and knowledgeable control of breath can provide a different mental focus and even more importantly, switch on the parasympathetic, or “de-stress”, part of the nervous system.

Just to illustrate that breath work isn’t simply some New Age mumbo-jumbo, I’ll share that I’ve been told that the very balance of pH of the body changes depending on whether inhalation or exhalation is dominant. The exhalation is more alkaline and the inhalation is more acidic. Now, be careful not to make rash assumptions about whether acidity or alkalinity is better because the fact is that a finely-tuned balance is vital to good health, and even survival. The point is that the manner in which breath flows has a profound effect physiologically, chemically, on you! Here’s a relatively good explanation that avoids going too deeply into the various complexities of body chemistry:

To work with the breath when things are feeling a little out of control, start by remembering that conscious work with the breath can help. I know, that sounds simplistic. But often the most significant obstacle to using this method of deconstructing stress is that we fail to remember to do it!

  • Get a general sense of the length of your inhalation and exhalation. No need to be-labour this. Simply have a sense. Whether it feels like it’s three counts in and two count out, or one in and one out, your sense is correct.
  • Next, purposefully attempt to breathe the inhalation and the exhalation (the parts of the breath) for the same amount of time, choosing the amount of time that was longest during the previous stage. If, after a couple of rounds (each complete inhalation and exhalation cycle) you find yourself striving or tense (check your eyes, jaw, shoulders, chest, elsewhere), back off by one count. Continue in this way until breathing with intention feels easy but still holds your attention.

Your torso should be expanding outward as you breathe in, and retracting as your breathe out. Shoulders and to a lesser degree the belly progressively are growing quieter.

  • Now start to focus on the exhalation. Notice whether both sides of your torso grab your attention equally. Are both sides deflating at the same rate and to the same degree? Your focus is on the exhalation. The inhalation simply flows in of its own accord, through the vacuum you’ve created. As you breathe out, gently keep your awareness on the side that seems to be less active. This naturally tends to bring the two sides into more even involvement.
  • Once the two sides seem balanced, experiment with lengthening the exhalation by a count or two beyond its previous length. The inhalation is the same length as before. Be alert to tension building and revert to a natural, uncontrolled breath if you feel hardness in your eyes, tightness in the jaw, or any other sensation of striving.

Often, the body and mind become noticeably calmer with just a few minutes of this type of breathing. I encourage you to give it an honest chance, and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions, don’t seem to experience the intended effects, or would like personal instruction in this simple but profound yogic technique.

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