Facing life’s challenges through the breath
By Alicia Barmon
Breathing is one of the fastest ways to mitigate stress in the autonomic nervous system. It gives us direct access to a system that is involuntary and reactive—that is, one that functions on its own without conscious thought. When we have a conscious relationship with our breath, we can shift the state of our nervous system in as little as 90 seconds. A relationship with the breath is a life-changing tool that can create the capacity to be with life’s challenges with the space and power to enable us to heal.
The nervous system speaks the language of tone of voice, touch and breath. In this post, I’ll share more about how breathing mirrors our psychological state and how to shift our breathing to support health and well-being.
What can our breathing patterns tell us about ourselves?
The breath can be an accelerator, brake, stabilizer and even a compass. It can give us energy when we are low, it can settle us when we are wired, and balance the nervous system when we are overwhelmed. Our breathing lets us know what nervous system state we are in through its location, quality and cadence. We breathe about 20,000 breaths a day, most of those outside our conscious awareness. It takes daily practice to cultivate a relationship to the breath but with practice, our breath can become an ally and companion through the waves of life.
Our ability to ride the waves of life is also reflected in the health and dynamism of the breath. A supple, responsive, dynamic breath is an extension of a nervous system that has the capacity to respond to life’s challenges. Breathing that is shallow, fast, loud (lots of sighing) and disorganized with random breath holds signals an overwhelmed nervous system. Disordered breath patterns mirror our psychological capacity to cope with stress. Upper chest breathing, for example, causes over-breathing which signals a stress response locking us into cycles of anxiety and subsequent states of overwhelm. It also depletes our carbon dioxide which inhibits the transfer of oxygen to the tissues which can create brain fog, chronic health issues, and depressive states of mind.
A glimpse into breath and grief
Breath patterns elucidate the many management strategies we develop to cope with trauma and stress. Shallow breathing helps us feel less pain while simultaneously keeping pain stuck. If we can’t breathe fully, we may experience challenges fully expressing grief. Deepening the breath into the lower lungs moves us out of sympathetic activation and into the parasympathetic state where grief can flow. Grief doesn’t flow when we’re in fight/flight/freeze mode. We need to feel safe enough to feel—and the breath can communicate this to the nervous system.
A breath that can support the movement and expression of emotion, mobilize our self-protective responses, and that can drop us into a state of rest/digest/connect when appropriate is a breath that sustains life.
Build nervous system safety through the breath
In a culture that often emphasizes disconnection from the body and the earth, we tend to overeat and over-breathe. Many of us were trained to take a bigger-than-normal breath to alleviate stress. Some experts, however, argue that big breaths only perpetuate the problem—much the way that overeaters can also be malnourished. On the contrary, learning how to do the following is what builds safety into the nervous system over time:
- Slowing the breath down
- Dropping the breathing low and laterally in the chest
- Reducing the volume of air we breathe
- Building breath hunger*
Ironically, it’s our capacity to breathe less while moving more that reflects our resilience and health.
*Breath hunger refers to cultivating our capacity for the buildup of CO2 in the body, which signals the urge to breathe, and can help with non-reactivity and anxiety driven by chronic hyperventilation.
Alicia Barmon, MA, LCPC, C-IAYT, is a somatic psychotherapist, yoga therapist, and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP). She guides daily breathwork practice and teaches the therapeutic applications of the breath to those in the healing profession.
Read more about specific breathing practices to support mind-body health here.