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).
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 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?