The power of breath
Updated: Jan 28
One of our most powerful mental wellbeing tools is something we regularly take for granted. In this article, I talk about how we can use breathing to anchor ourselves, regulate stress and connect to joy.
“Take a breath” or “Just breathe” are phrases that you’ll often hear in your daily life. I find myself saying them to my children when they are overwhelmed or crying, and I know that breathing is a better option than getting angry when I’m feeling impatient. That’s because, along with its important biological function, breathing can be an incredible tool to improve your resilience and strengthen mental wellbeing.
One of the most undervalued aspects of life is the biological magic that it is to be here – to be human. It’s something we take for granted, and our breathing is right at the centre of this. Breath is very powerful. Most of our organs can survive on minimal resources, but breathing is our most essential function – not only filling our lungs with oxygen but also removing toxins like carbon dioxide. In fact, 84% of the fat that we break down in our body is breathed out.
Breath as an anchor
There is a misconception that mindfulness always begins in the mind. In actuality, it can be much harder to control where your mind is going than it is to tune into something that is very physical, rhythmical and practical – your breath. Tuning into your breathing can be the first point of call for connecting with your body, which is useful when you’re in a space of discomfort or dealing with anxiety, fatigue or distress.
The process of breathing can give you a sensation of anchoring – of connecting with the present. To use breath as an anchor, you need to tune in and bring your full attention and whole self to it. One simple way to practise anchoring is to stop and take five deep slow breaths before eating every meal, creating a genuine mind and body connection. It’s a chance to slow down and assure your whole body that you feel calm and safe before eating – which also has the proven benefit of aiding digestion and boosting immunity.
When less positive things are happening in your environment or in your head, anchoring can also be a powerful tool to pacify your emotions, buy you time and help you move away from your biological fight or flight function. Of course, we don’t want to suppress our emotions, but choosing to focus on mindful breathing invokes the executive function of your brain so you can better manage your emotions while working through the situation.
Breathing in response to stress
Increasing your self-awareness around your emotional responses is important, because the sooner you can invoke mindful techniques like tapping into your breathing, the better equipped you are to work through and deal with negative feelings. For example, sometimes when I’m about to present to a large audience, I can feel my heart rate increase, and I get quite jittery. This is my body’s first signal that I’m nervous or anxious.
Everyone has different triggers, depending on their life experiences. Start by being curious about your own and then tuning into them, whether they’re fatigue, work stress, an action, a person, or perhaps social anxiety. Next, when faced with these triggers, make focussing on your breath your go-to action and try to embed the habit. For example, if you have social anxiety and need to walk into a party, you could routinely go to the bathroom first and practise some deep breathing, or use a prompt like your hand on the door handle to take a few really slow deep breaths before entering.
I also like to use a stress-reduction technique called resonant breathing. You can use this tool in any situation – in the moment, looking at a clock, or while you’re walking. It’s a pattern of breathing in for 10 seconds, then out for 10 seconds, a total of six times. It’s very pacifying and it only takes two minutes in total. So if you’re in a state of high anxiety at work, get up from your desk, take a short walk around the building and focus mindfully on the rhythm of your steps and the in-and-out of your breath. This is my go-to approach for cutting off negative self-talk and settling my nerves before walking out onto a stage.
Originally published on www.onelife.aiavitality.com.au on April 5, 2019.
Alisa Camplin is an Olympic Gold Medalist, in-demand Keynote Speaker, Corporate Ambassador, and Human Performance Consultant who delivers results-driven Resilience and Human Performance Training and Development Programs. Connect with Alisa.