Over the years, I’ve practiced various breathing techniques to reduce stress not knowing how they work, what is really going on in my body. Then I listened to this Terry Gross’ interview with James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art. He explains how breathing works in the body and emotions, and how we can use the simplest of practices to calm or energize ourselves, and heal.
Understanding how this rarely-acknowledged organ works has helped me become much more aware of my breathing —and when I’m holding my breath out of anxiety or anticipation— and to adjust as needed. It has been transformative. The whole interview is worth listening to or reading (full transcript here), but I’ve culled some essential ideas.
In the beginning of the interview, Nestor explains why mouth breathing so adversely affects health and mood, and the profound role the nose plays in well-being:
…so many of us don’t realize how the nose can trigger different hormones to flood into our bodies, how it can lower our blood pressure, how the stages of a woman’s menstrual cycle are correlated to different areas of the nose, how it monitors heart rate – on and on and on – even helps store memories.
When we control our breathing, we can influence so much of how our bodies operate. But most people, myself included, don’t breath deeply or adequately. But we can learn, by practicing, to breath naturally through our nose.
…your nose…is… really a use-it-or-lose-it organ. The more you breathe through it, the more you’re going to be able to breathe through it.
How does how we breath affect anxiety?
…people with anxieties or other fear-based conditions, typically, will breathe way too much. So what happens when you breathe that much is you’re constantly putting yourself into a state of stress. So you’re stimulating that sympathetic side of the nervous system.
And the way to change that is to breathe deeply, because if you think about it, if you’re stressed out – a tiger is going to come get you, you know, you’re going to get hit by a car – you’re going to breathe, breathe, breathe as much as you can. But by breathing slowly, that is associated with a relaxation response. So the diaphragm lowers. You’re allowing more air into your lungs. And your body immediately switches to a relaxed state.
Breathing is a tool you can use to do different things. You can modulate your breathing to feel balanced, have more energy, or to relax and diffuse anxiety. Nestor tells how:
For day to day activity, a calming natural breath is balanced, 5 1/2 to 6 seconds inhaling and 5 1/2 to 6 seconds exhaling. This is, remarkably, the time it take to recite the Ave Maria Catholic prayer cycle and the Buddhist prayer om mani padme hum. The body enters a state of balance in which all of the organs, all of the systems work in harmony with one another.
If you want to stimulate yourself and get going, you can breathe much faster. You can also inhale longer and exhale shorter if you want a little boost of energy.
If you want to slow down and become more relaxed, you can exhale longer than you inhale. So that will have a very powerful effect on you for relaxation. Lengthen the exhale before sleep to relax.
Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique works wonders for this. He calls it “the most powerful anti-anxiety measure I’ve found”.
…you want to make it very easy for your body to get air, especially if this is an act that we’re doing 25,000 times a day. So by just extending those inhales and exhales, by moving that diaphragm up and down a little more, you can have a profound effect on your blood pressure, on your mental state, on – even on longevity because so much of longevity is correlated with respiratory health and lung size.James Nestor, Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art
And then, there is THIS additional view:
Every breath is an opportunity to let love in.Joél Leon.