Reading self-help books. Working with a coach. Practicing yoga. Lifting weights. Analyzing dreams. Enjoying nature. Writing in a journal. . . We all actively do many things to ultimately feel good.
With all the ways we are pursuing higher levels of wellbeing, we often forget one of the simplest things we can do – to breathe deeply and fully.
Breathing is designed so that we perform it on autopilot, in the background of our lives. It’s possible to live our days giving it zero attention. So why am I writing an entire post about breathing? Can’t we just check it off our list, since it is going to happen whether we pay attention or not?
Well, it turns out that we’re not especially good at breathing.
According to the Sivananda Companion to Yoga, “Most people have forgotten how to breathe properly. They breathe shallowly, through the mouth and make little or no use of the diaphragm – either lifting the shoulders or contracting the abdomen when they inhale. In this way, only a small amount of oxygen is taken in and only the top of the lungs is used, resulting in lack of vitality and low resistance to disease.”
Here’s what a full breath looks like:
- Breathe through your nose, with your mouth closed.
- Inhale deeply, allowing your abdomen and chest to expand. Keep inhaling as your collarbones lift.
- Pause but don’t hold your breath.
- Exhale slowly and fully, releasing your shoulders and then allowing your abdomen to contract.
When we breathe deeply and smoothly, with purpose, we energize our cells with oxygen and give our organs and muscles the opportunity to be at their best. This translates into a bunch of awesome things for our bodies, minds, and spirits, especially if we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
Dr. John Travis and Regina Sara Ryan describe some of these benefits in the Wellness Workbook – How to Achieve Enduring Health and Vitality. Specifically, you can use your breath to:
1. Release Tension, Fear, and Grief
Our bodies are designed to protect ourselves, whether in response to a saber-tooth tiger, or to our own disturbing thoughts. This “fight or flight” response includes a surge of adrenaline, as well as an increased rate of breathing and metabolism.
This works well when we are encountering a genuine emergency, but when it happens regularly in response to feeling overwhelmed at work, we drain our energy reserves. Feeling depleted and fatigued, we’re more at risk of illness and disease.
Our bodies, minds, and spirits are all linked. It’s not possible to tell where one ends, and one begins. There is a link between the rate and depth of our breathing, and feeling anxious or calm. This means that when we’re stressed, we may not be able to immediately change our workload or our jobs, but we can change how we breathe in the moment. And breathing more deeply helps us feel peaceful, rather than anxious.
Stress isn’t the only experience that makes it challenging to breathe deeply and fully. Fear, anger, and grief also may restrict our breathing.
I found this out first-hand when I visited my massage therapist during a break-up with my boyfriend. Heartsick, I rested face-down on the table. While I enjoyed her efforts, I was still enveloped in sadness. After the massage, I wanted her reassurance that I would heal, body and soul.
“How do you think my body and muscles are right now?” I asked.
She didn’t miss a beat. “You’ve forgotten to breathe.”
That’s weird, I thought. Was she right? I focused on my rib cage, and realized it was barely expanding and contracting. I felt like a vice grip was on my chest, refusing to let me breathe deeply.
One of the most common reactions to grief is shallow breathing. When our hearts are emotionally wounded, our bodies respond physically. Our muscles that we use to breathe tighten to protect ourselves from being hurt again. We further restrict our own breathing by holding in difficult emotions such as grief or fear.
2. Optimize Your Performance
We deal with many stressful situations every day. Commuting during rush hour, meeting deadlines at work, staying connected through social media, keeping donors happy, meeting financial goals, getting along with a challenging co-worker. . . all of these circumstances create anxiety.
Full breathing helps us release tension. It also helps us be in the present moment, and increases our mental clarity.
Rather than worrying about the past or dreading the future, you can pay attention to right now. Using your breath to center yourself is an easy way to keep yourself in the present, because when your breath is calm, your mind is calm.
Wow! Did you catch that?
We can control the state of our minds, by first controlling our breath. How empowering!
Have you ever used your breath to help you be at your best?
I remember years ago, driving to Sacramento to take a professional certification exam. I had studied for weeks, and was anxious. I also had been practicing yoga for a while.
I couldn’t shake my anxiety, so I began breathing deeply, the way my yoga teacher had taught us. I could hear her voice in my head, saying, “Inhale to the count of four. . . and now exhale to the count of eight.”
For over a half-hour, I drove and breathed deeply. I arrived feeling simultaneously peaceful and mentally sharp. It turned out to be a good combo for taking the exam, and I completed section after section feeling calm instead of anxious. Nice.
3. Heal Your Body
When we breathe deeply and rhythmically, we give all our cells the oxygen they need for healing to begin. We help our cells to reach their potential.
We can also use our breath to reduce the tension we experience when we have hurt ourselves. Focusing on breathing more deeply keeps the tension from increasing our levels of pain.
Have you used your breath to help you heal, either physically or emotionally?
Years ago, I came down with bronchitis while visiting my family in Virginia. After two visits to Urgent Care, I wasn’t improving quickly. In fact, one night I became scared that I was having trouble breathing. I did NOT want to go back to Urgent Care for a third visit.
I didn’t know what to do, and I felt panic rising at the thought of not being able to breathe. . .
So, I laid flat on the floor and did a yoga asana called “The Fish.” It expands your chest and requires concentrated breathing. I did it for five full minutes, which is a long time to hold that position, but the funny thing was that I felt better.
I began healing after those desperate moments on the floor. I saved myself from another scary and unpleasant trip to Urgent Care. I wish I had paid more attention to my body earlier, and given it what it needed.
Seven Breathing Tips If You’re Overwhelmed at Work
I’ve created a list for you, based on the suggestions that Dr. Travis and Regina Ryan share in the Wellness Workbook.
- Wear comfortable clothes that don’t restrict your breathing. Panty hose, tight collars, tight jeans – reconsider!
- Schedule breaks in your day to check in on your breathing and posture. Make sure your back is in a gentle “S” curve, and not a hunched “C.”
- Use post-it notes with reminders (“Breathe!” or “Inhale” or “Exhale”) and post them in your office. Every time you see one, deeply breathe.
- Bring a plant into your work space to reduce carbon dioxide. Talk nicely to it and give it sunshine and water.
- Check out healthy.net for great breathing exercises.
- Avoid polluted environments whenever possible.
- Respect that our planet breathes too, and remember that air pollution has reached crisis levels. Weigh your decisions about the size of your carbon footprint.
Our breathing can have a powerful, positive impact on our wellbeing.
We can do it!
P.S. If you’re overwhelmed with work and want to feel more centered, you may enjoy working with a coach. Click here for a free strategy session!