2020 is giving most of us reasons to be anxious and fearful thanks to COVID-19, unemployment, the economy, racial inequality, and anything else this crazy year has thrown your way.
I have one word of advice—breathe.
Breathing intentionally in a relaxed, controlled way is something you can do anytime, anywhere. It requires nothing more than bringing awareness to your next inhalation.
Breathing is so vital, your body does it for you
Because oxygen is a basic element of life and one of the body’s top priorities, breathing happens without thought or effort. Consider the 'Rule of Threes' coined by survival experts to establish your priorities if you ever find yourself stranded somewhere in the wilderness or otherwise in dire straits.
Human beings can survive about:
- 3 weeks without food
- 3 days without water
- 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment
- 3 minutes without oxygen
The part of your brain that governs both lungs and heart—the medulla oblongata—works constantly to control the respiratory process. That’s why even when you’re sleeping, the muscles responsible for inhaling and exhaling continue on without you.
Yet you can also exert control over this automatic process to use the life-sustaining action of inhaling and exhaling to your advantage. Breathing in a slow, controlled, intentional manner activates the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibits the body from overworking, restoring it to a calm state. It’s the antidote to the sympathetic nervous system, which is engaged during a "fight or flight” response to a potential threat.
The benefits of conscious breathing
Bringing full awareness to your breathing brings many benefits:
- Sense of calmness during times of duress.
- Momentary pause that can keep you from doing or saying something regretful. Pausing can be difficult in the midst of a heated moment, yet that’s when it’s also most valuable.
- Improved health and vitality.
The next time you find yourself ruminating over bad news or feeling the stress of this crazy time, just breathe. Breathe from the diaphragm, not in an exaggerated way that could cause hyperventilation, but fully expanding from your belly and emptying your lungs completely.
Tactics for mindful breathing:
- Inhale for two, exhale for three, repeating several times.
- Count every in-breath until you reach ten.
- Lengthen every inhale and exhale to last about four-five seconds.
Stop if you if you start to feel dizzy or light-headed to return your body to a more natural state. Counting is important—do it aloud if it’s appropriate—because it diverts attention away from the internal chatter and negative thoughts and keeps you in the moment.
When you’re ready to let your medulla oblongata resume control of your lungs again, you will then be calmer and more relaxed to consider:
What is the next best thing I can do, here and now?
Mindful breathing will not solve problems, but it can be the magic elixir that keeps the body from going into full fight or flight mode, which served us well when we were fleeing tigers and bears, but doesn’t work so well on modern threats.
One mindful breath gives time to consider your next words and actions. One mindful breath can protect you from ‘open mouth, insert foot’ syndrome—and since words spoken can never be retrieved, a few extra seconds of mindful breathing can be time well-invested.
Just breathe for better physical health
The year I was diagnosed with mbc, I had a pleural effusion—a buildup of fluid in my right lung that opened my eyes to the scary feeling of breathlessness. At one point it initiated a coughing attack that was so severe, I thought it would be my demise. It didn’t help that I was already oxygen-deprived at an elevation of 9600’ in Breckenridge, Colorado, or that I was with several people in the middle of a busy bar/restaurant when it happened.
I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room to try and recover, only to find myself in an empty restroom, realizing I could collapse on the floor, only to be discovered by a random tourist or one of my friends finally noticing I’d been gone for quite awhile. But I knew I needed to relax, and as difficult as breathing was in that moment, I did my best to focus on inhaling and exhaling, and I recovered.
Now I try to incorporate conscious breathing regularly into my life. I learned about the Wim Hof Method, which includes forcefully inhaling and exhaling about 30 times in succession. It causes a kind of hyperventilation (perhaps don’t do it alone) that supposedly raises blood-cell oxygen levels to the maximum amount. Since I live in Colorado, my blood cells are in perpetual need of oxygen anyway, so the concept caught my eye.
The process is completed with a long exhale that you hold, which pushes the oxygen levels back down. The whole method, combined with sustained exposure to cold air or water, is supposed to change your chemistry to suppress inflammation and deliver other healthful effects. You can read more about it in on the Wim Hof website.
Taking a few seconds to focus on breathing is always available and always effective when you need distance from things that don’t matter or to better prepare for things that do.
It’s during a crisis that a mindful approach to breathing can bring instant relief, but it’s also a tool for daily management of any little thing and taking a Stage 4 approach life.