A Deeper Look At Deep Breathing
We can live about 40 days without food, and about 3 days without water--yet only a few minutes without air. Breathing is so crucial to our survival that the brain automatically regulates it. It mostly operates unconsciously, but through consciously controlling it we can excel our mental, emotional, and physical health.
The brain sets the rhythm of our breathing. The default it creates becomes our baseline breathing rate. But, by simply self-regulating our breathing toward different rhythms, we can boost our wellness beyond our baseline (see this article for the basics of deep breathing).
Going Beyond Our Baseline
Our regular breathing rate keeps our lungs at a consistent inhale-exhale expansion. The brain doesn't naturally inhale and exhale the lungs to full capacity, so deep breathing purposefully makes your inhales and exhales go beyond their ordinary scope. See the diagram below: the smaller circles represent the exhales, the larger circles the inhales.
What's Above Our Baseline?
If you've ever been in a situation when you couldn't easily take your next breath (such as when swimming, or temporarily choking), you can probably remember the panic you felt. Innate breathing keeps us feeling "normal." Deep breathing, comparatively, can take us beyond our current state of normal, bringing us to new levels of health (energy, clarity & relaxation). Here are three reasons why...
Deep breathing is a simple way to increase the oxygen levels to our brain and body. This gives the brain additional fuel to help us think more clearly, and in the body it aids our muscles with more energy. Deeper exhales allow us to better regulate carbon dioxide levels--which needs more context to truly appreciate...
...Carbon Dioxide Resilience
When you hold your breath for a period of time, the brain sends you a strong emergency signal prompting you to take a breath (to inhale and exhale). Yes, the brain needs oxygen (inhale), but it also wants to eliminate carbon dioxide (exhale). So, the urge to breathe is based on our need for oxygen and carbon dioxide regulation.
This leads us to the next benefit of deep breathing--teaching the brain and body to relax while having prolonged pauses between the inhales and exhales. The basics of deep breathing includes a lengthened pause after a deep inhale, and a sustained pause after the deep exhale. Over time you can increase the time of your pauses to help the body and brain acclimate to higher levels of carbon dioxide.
At first this feels uncomfortable, but over time it allows the body and brain to increase your sense of relaxation. When the brain, body, and overall nervous system is at a calmer state, there are more resources available to give us increased energy, peace, and clarity. While deep breathing helps better regulate our "wireless system" (air), it also helps activate something "hard-wired" into our body...
...The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is a complex network of integrated nerve fibers that connects the brainstem to our internal organs, including our heart. Research shows that deep breathing helps this parasympathetic nerve activate the entire parasympathetic nervous system (a division of our nervous system that helps our brain and body maintain a relaxed state).
Variations of Deep Breathing
A great place to start is practicing the basics of deep breathing. Once this becomes part of your lifestyle, you can research and practice other variations of deep breathing. There are many forms, and each type can further amplify the therapeutic benefit.
The steps of deep breathing are relatively simple! Yet, integrating the practice into your everyday life takes intentionality, effort, and time. Making deep breathing a habit will boost your well-being, provide you with more energy, increase calmness, and sharpen your mental clarity.
Zach Lucas is a Licensed Professional Counselor for the State of Oregon.
He also teaches dual credit high school Psychology classes in the Portland area.
Feel free to contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The information provided is for self-exploration only and not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition or disease. Always consult with a licensed professional who specializes in the area you are seeking to understand and treat.