Reading for Treasure

Take a Breath, Baby!

Posted at Apr 26, 2017 8:00 am

windImagine your world is spiraling out of control:

  • Crying kids
  • Complaining clients
  • A furious boss
  • A screaming spouse
  • Or even a stranger-danger type of confrontation.

Whatever the situation, you’re powerless to change it.

You feel yourself descending into a state of panic.

pauseDon’t you wish there was a magic button to put the world on pause?

There isn’t.

But let me suggest what might be the next best thing. Your breathing.

In the midst of chaos, focus on controlling your breathing. Take a deep, slow intake of air—count to 4 or 5 as you inhale deeply into your lungs. Hold for a beat. Then exhale—again to the count of 4 or 6.

Repeat.                  Once.                      Twice.                    Again.                    As often as necessary.

Until the inner panic recedes.

If you’re like most people, time will feel as if it slows down during this exercise. You’ll be more alert, and think more clearly. The new clarity may help you find a way to deal with the chaos.

Why? Some insist the technique aligns chakras, balances chi or accomplishes other ancient, mystic tasks. They may be right. In many languages the words for wind, breath and spirit derive from the same root word. Deep breathing may impact our spiritual states.

Scientists know it impacts our physical state. In his groundbreaking book “The Relaxation Response” Dr. Herbert Benson discusses the physiology of deep breathing. Controlled, deep breathing is “full oxygen exchange.” Shallow breathing doesn’t give our lungs enough oxygen. It also doesn’t allow us to exhale carbon dioxide—a by-product of respiration. The build-up of carbon dioxide and lack of oxygen creates more panic in our systems.

Dr. Benson argued that controlled breathing activates the “parasympathetic nervous system” which is the body’s way of counteracting the fight or flight mechanism. It calms us down long enough to help us think.

Now, to be clear, I’m generally in favor of the fight or flight mechanism and the way it speeds up decision making to ensure our safety. I’m also in favor of acting on intuition. (The brain analyzes data much faster than our conscious thought process can understand. In times of danger, it’s better to act now and figure out why later.)

But in our modern world, the fight or flight mechanism is out of control in most cases. A missed work deadline or other artificial stimulus can activate it. While it may make life more difficult, a missed deadline is not a life threatening situation. But the brain doesn’t know that. Controlled breathing—it turns out—is the pause button that puts our primitive brain on hold long enough for our rational thought processes to kick in. You can read more about it in Dr. Benson’s book, or you can check out a discussion of it in Forbes via the link here

Meanwhile, remember that when the world is brewing up a storm that threatens to blow you off course, draw a deep breath, tap into your strength of spirit, and take back control.


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