The Magic of the Exhale

If there is one thing that I can point to that has had the most profound effect on my reaction to anxiety-provoking stimuli, and also brought more calm into my entire day, it is deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes referred to as “belly breathing”) is an effective way to bring air into the lungs than simply inhaling into the chest. As the belly pushes outward, it pulls the diaphragm down, allowing the lungs to fully inflate.

This deep breath, in conjunction with my favorite breathing pattern — Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-count inhale, 7-count hold, 8-count exhale — is what I call my magic pill. I have found this type of breathing to be very soothing. Dr. Weil based the 4-7-8 pattern on pranayama, an ancient yogic breathing technique, but the benefits are well-supported by modern science (Gerritsen & Band, 2018, Front Hum Neurosci, for example).

Neuroscientifically Challenged presents a short video introduction to the vagus nerve: “2-Minute Neuroscience: Vagus Nerve (Cranial Nerve X)“. It’s everything you never knew you really needed to know about the vagus nerve.

For me, it is the extended exhalation that is key. When the length of the exhale equals or particularly exceeds that of the inhale, a signal is sent to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and the longest one, running from the brain down to the abdomen, innervating a number of major organs along the way. The vagus nerve is also a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system (think: “rest and digest”) (Breit et al., 2017, Front Psychiatry).

The extended exhale has been shown to increase heart rate variability (HRV), slow down the heart rate itself and relax the body. HRV “represents the healthy fluctuation in beat-to-beat intervals of a human or animal’s heart rate. … Higher HRV is associated with stronger vagus nerve function, lower chronic stress levels, better overall health, and improved cognition” (Bergland, 2019, Psychology Today).

When I notice that I’m rushing through my day or experience wakefulness in the middle of the night, I have learned to turn my attention to my breath. Regardless of whether or not I’m feeling anxious, I often find myself breathing more rapidly and shallowly (chest breathing). As soon as I become aware of this, I take a deep, diaphragmatic breath and deliberately extend the exhale.

That first deep breath makes me realize how much I needed to slow things down.

That first deep breath is like putting the breaks on a runaway locomotive. It make take several more breaths to fall into that full pattern. I don’t force it — I simply allow each breath to be slower and deeper than the previous one. The sense of grounding feels amazing. I keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, so I take care to release those muscles with each exhale. The result is that I feel a gentle sinking and relaxing.

One of the ways that I’ve benefitted most significantly by taking a “breath break” like this is that it has linked my formal, “on-the-cushion” meditation to the rest of my life. Even after I had established a daily meditation practice, I struggled to bring that same sense of calm into the rest of my day. Breathwork was the missing piece of the puzzle.

This deep breathing slows the overwhelming rush of sensations and provides an immediate connection to “now”, inviting stillness and spaciousness. Noticing my breathing in the midst of chaos exercises mindfulness. All this results in a sense of contentment and well-being.

Who wouldn’t want that?

When You’re The “Default”, You Don’t See The Problem

While it might not seem like a cancer/meditation/mindfulness blog is the place to bring up the issue of racial disparities, I feel this is exactly the right place for it. Because we should all be talking about this in every situation.

I am white. I grew up with people on television who looked just like me. I had dolls that looked just like me. Companies marketed their products to people who looked like me, using advertisements with actors who looked like me. Even the crayon color called “flesh” looked like my skin, and I didn’t question it. I had school friends who were black, but I didn’t understand their experience. So I really understood nothing. As a child, I didn’t see the problem.

But the problem is massive and we haven’t made much progress since the days of the 20th Century civil rights movement. The main thing that’s changed is that we now have video phones so we’re bearing witness to events that have been going on all along, but unseen by the white community.

You cannot turn 400 years of oppression around with non-discrimination laws, congratulate yourself and proclaim everyone “equal” (read: shouldn’t be complaining), because the inequality has been in our system for so long that it’s what the country runs on. It lubricates the gears of society. And there are people in power who like it that way.

This needs to change and it needs to change now.

If you don’t think that being white infers an automatic privilege, try being a black teen in a hoodie, walking through an affluent white neighborhood.

Rethinking “Essential”

Years ago, I went through earthquake disaster training at work. I was designated a point person for our floor of the building, and therefore given a sticker for my ID that read, “Essential Personnel”. A friend of mine, upon seeing this, quipped, “Does that mean they dig you out first?”

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Three months ago I would have never imagined getting a rush from finding a bag of flour tucked way back on a store shelf.

We now have a new measuring stick by which to judge what is “essential” to our lives. Clearly it’s not the trendy shoes or sporting events that we think we can’t live without. It’s the doctors and nurses that we take for granted, mail carriers and Amazon delivery people that we gripe about when our package is late, grocery store clerks and restaurant cashiers to whom we don’t give the time of day They are the blessings in our lives.

When we return to normalcy, take some of this back with you.

These days, leftovers are perfectly acceptable. The food long ago shoved into the back of the freezer transforms into a delicious dinner. And the unexpected shipment of hand sanitizer at the local warehouse store brings immeasurable joy.

How refreshing to truly appreciate these seemingly little things that we have, right now, in this moment.

Eventually, we’ll emerge on the other side of this. And I hope, in the midst of all the finger pointing and contentious debates, we pause and think about what has transpired. Consider how quickly our realities changed. Consider those who have lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost hope. Consider the people who have dedicated themselves and risked their lives to keep things moving, keep others healthy, keep you fed.

As we resume our busy lives and the din of the city increases again, I hope and pray that we don’t lose this appreciation. Respect and gratitude are not partisan concepts, so we should stop acting as if they are.

I can assure you, I will never take cleaning wipes for granted again.