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?

How Do You Want To Feel?

I’ve really been enjoying a guided meditation on Insight Timer by Australian trainer and life coach Emma Polette, entitled “Morning Visualisation Meditation”. In fact, it’s been the first meditation that I’ve done every morning for the past month. What makes me like it so much? It reminds me that I can choose the emotional state with which I enter into my day.

Emma facilitates this by instructing the listener to “allow yourself to feel how to want to feel today.” I love this concept! So many of us want to be calm or happy or courageous, but we look at it as a cognitive endeavor and get nowhere with it. Emma reminds us to actually feel what it feels like. If my goal is to feel peaceful, then I imagine what it would feel like, if I were actually peaceful – I generate those feelings in my body.

By feeling into the sensations of a positive state, we can lessen the severity of negative emotions. It takes consistency and practice, but is worth the effort.

This takes practice and focus, but the payoff is wonderful. Think of it as establishing a new habit – repetition is necessary in order to seal it into your daily routine. The more you bring up those feelings in your body and really feel into all the different sensations associated with them, the easier it is to invoke that feeling the next time. And that next time might be a time of stress, when you’re in particular need of soothing.

Just as you may associate a meditation cushion with a sense of grounding, or a certain time of the day with a mindful mood because that’s when you always meditate, you can also improve your ability to bring up positive sensations that help keep you present and calm. All it takes is consistent practice.

I should mention that this is not to suggest that if you’re feeling strong negative emotions or succumbing to anxiety it’s a flaw of some kind. There will be numerous occasions when we get swept up by distressing thoughts. Sometimes it will be hard to release them. And that’s okay.

But I find it very empowering to start my day in a positive frame of mind, knowing that I am not helpless against stressors. Just as how in mindfulness meditation when we realize that we’ve lost focus and have slipped down a rabbit hole, we simply return to the breath, we can also notice how it feels in our bodies to experience stress or anger or whatever negative emotion settles down on us.

It might be a tightness in the chest that shortens our breath and sends our heart racing. It might be a cold sensation in our stomach and lower abdomen that elicits nausea, or it may be a hot flush that toasts our cheeks. With the awareness of what we are experiencing in the moment, we can gently breathe through those bodily sensations, relax the agitation and then remember how it would feel to feel the more pleasant sensations that we’ve practiced every morning.

How would you rather be feeling right now? Can you feel it?