FEARLESS – Lessening Stress
Breathing is essential to living and a vital function for all human beings. A baby’s first breath after being born is symbolic of the beginning of conscious life. Your last breath indicates death, though the heart may continue beating long after (one is not genuinely dead with the last breath).
Fortunately, we don’t have to think about each breath we take because we have in place an autonomic nervous system that paces our cyclical breathing on its own. Brain signals tell our lungs, through nerve hookups, to breathe faster, slower, or more in-depth. Of course, we can override this automatic process whenever we choose, for example, when we sigh or take rapid breaths (hyperventilate) before diving underwater.
Breathing allows us to bring oxygen into our bodies and relieve ourselves of a byproduct of metabolism, carbon dioxide (C02). C02, generated as a waste product, is our exhaust (like an automobile exhaust). We get sick immediately if we can’t take up oxygen from our surrounding environment or eliminate C02.
We breathe, on average, 23,000 breaths per day, or 16 breaths per minute. Imagine what life would be like if we had to think about every breath we take. There would be no time for any other thoughts. A minor distraction could lead to low oxygen levels, irritate our hearts, and cause brain fog or muscle weakness.
Asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, heart failure, lung cancer, and many other diseases can be disruptive to breathing and fatal when severe. In some circumstances, we may need supplemental oxygen or intubation (a tube placed into our lungs to provide oxygen) to stay alive when lung damage is excessive.
We can improve the function of our bellows (the lungs) by incorporating breathing exercises into our daily lives. When we breathe in, our heart rate speeds up, and when we breathe out, it slows down. This is called Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia. There are many types of deep breathing exercises, but most are based on the relationship between heart rate and respiration. Controlled breathing allows us to increase and decrease our heart rate in a way that relaxes and calms us down.
Yoga instructors focus on the importance of deep breathing exercises. The heart, blood vessels, and other tissues benefit from healthy breathing exercises. My favorite deep breathing exercise was introduced to me in an online seminar by Dr. Andrew Weil. It’s called the 4-7-8 breathing.
Follow these steps for 4-7-8 Breathing:
- Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Breathe out through pursed lips over 8 seconds.
Dr. Weil recommends you gently press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, just behind the upper teeth, when you do this breathing exercise.
It takes less than 2-3 minutes to do 3-5 cycles of 4-7-8 breathing. Start by doing the breathing routine upon awakening and before bed. After a month, try fitting in some deep breathing during the day. Take a moment to utilize this exercise whenever you feel tense, stressed, or emotionally upset. When asthma has been triggered, deep breathing is no substitute for a reliever inhaler but may complement it well.
If you have a heart condition such as heart failure or arrhythmias, or severe chronic lung disease, this breathing exercise may be difficult and risky. Consult your health care provider if you have concerns.