I’m not kidding. Sure, you knew how to breathe as soon as you were pushed out of the womb. But you didn’t learn to breathe right. If you were slapped on the butt by the doctor, you probably learned to breathe too shallow and too fast, maybe even hyperventilate. All that screaming and crying you did after leaving the comfort of the womb taught your brain that stress and anxiety go with rapid, shallow breathing. So when faced with adversity as you got older, your automatic reaction is to breathe too fast and too shallow. This is a case of classical conditioned learning. That kind of learning actually helps sustain stress, because your brain has learned that rapid, shallow, breathing is supposed to go with stress. The brain thinks this is normal.
About a month ago, I was having a large, benign growth on my neck removed by local surgeon. The area was locally anesthetized, but so much tissue was involved that as he had to cut deeper, I felt pain. The nurse said, huffing and puffing with staccato rhythm, “Breathe. Breath in, breath out.” After several such reminders, I blurted, “Is there any other way?” Then, I realized the risk I was taking if my surgeon started to laugh while holding a scalpel to my neck. But my doctor did a great job. And I was reminded that there is a right way and a wrong way to breathe under stressful conditions.
There are three principles to correct breathing for reducing stress:
- Breathe deeply. This means abdominally. As you inhale, the abdomen should protrude, filling the lungs better because the diaphragm contraction expands the chest cavity for more lung inflation.
- Breathe slowly. Common breathing rates are around 16-20 breaths per minute. This is fine when you are very active physically, but remember that the brain has through decades of conditioning learned to associate rapid breathing with distress. When you are trying to relax, you can shut down stress by slowing down to three to five breaths per minute.
- Exhale through the mouth. A good way to automate this method is to slightly open the mouth and move the tip of the tongue behind the front upper teeth during inhalation, then relax the tongue during exhalation.
You can use these principles in two well-known breathing techniques:
- The Navy Seal box technique. When they are not raiding a terrorist cell or on another similar stressful mission, Navy Seals train themselves to stay calm by taking a four-step breath cycle of inhale, hold breath, exhale, hold breath, and then repeating the cycle. Each step lasts 4 seconds. This would yield a total breathing rate of about four per minute. With practice, you can make each step last 5 or more seconds. Then you would be breathing like a yogi.
- The hum technique. Here, the idea is to make a soft, guttural humming sound throughout each exhalation. You can even do this during the exhale stages in the Navy technique. This may have a similar effect as using a mantra during meditation. Sometimes, people tell me I am humming when I had not been aware of it. I guess I have learned to associate humming with calming down and feeling good. Perhaps it is similar to why cats purr, which they do for two seemingly conflicting purposes: One is that the purring sound has a conditioned association with a calm state. When the cat is calm, it purrs. The other cause of purring is anxiety. In an anxious cat, anxiety acts as a cue that retrieves the memory of associated purring, which then helps to calm the cat.
If you are trying to train yourself to be calm, I recommend that you employ and combine the three principles and the two techniques during mindfulness meditation. All of these principles (deep and slow breathing, and exhaling via the mouth) and techniques (4-step and humming) can be synergistically combined during mindfulness meditation. In such meditation, the idea is to block out all thoughts in order to focus on breathing. You can achieve further synergy by mediating in certain yoga postures, which have their own relaxing effects. If you are like me, you are stiff and sore when you awake in the morning. I deal with this by combining yoga stretches with mindfulness meditation and stress-relieving breathing. It is a great way to start each day.
There is a biological explanation for why all these ideas work, but few scholars explain it. The whole constellation of beneficial effects is attributable to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a huge nerve that supplies most of the visceral organs — lungs, heart, and the entire gastrointestinal tract. Usually, when biology or physiology teachers explain the vagus nerve, they focus on its “motor” effects — initiating secretions, slowing heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and promoting peristaltic movements in the GI tract. What usually gets left out is that the vagus is a mixed nerve; it contains sensory fibers. These sensory fibers are activated by all the breathing functions mentioned above. These impulses signal the part of the anterior hypothalamus that contains the neuronal cell bodies of the so-called parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS suppresses the “fight or flight” system of the sympathetic nervous system, which is triggered by certain neurons in the posterior hypothalamus. Thus, feedback signals from proper breathing serve to keep the PNS active and in control of a relaxed physical and mental state.
So, CALM DOWN. And TAKE A DEEP BREATH.