Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Massage therapists have been asking this of you for decades. Because, well, it works.
Deep breathing is the most basic of self care. It doesn't just help get you through the pain of my elbow in your piriformis - though it can. Deep breathing hacks your nervous system. And we all need this hack right now.
Your nervous system, while immensely more complicated than I'm about to explain to you, can be broken down into two basic parts: the parasympathetic and your sympathetic. Your parasympathetic nervous system controls your Rest + Digest. Your sympathetic nervous system controls your Fight or Flight. Both cannot function at the same time. So when you engage your parasympathetic, you feel generally cool, calm, collected. No need to panic, you can slow it all down and smell the flowers. But if a sabertooth tiger is hiding in the bushes, you're going to want to hone in on the threat, assess it, and do it fast. Quick decisions, singular focus. The idea here is that if a sabertooth tiger is chasing you (hello sympathetic), you don't want to be worried about evacuating your bowels as you flee.... so that part of your nervous system, your rest and digest, shuts off. You hold your ground or you run like hell - only. Now, if at the end of this deeply distressing event you find you have peed yourself, well, your flight response is over. Clearly (unfortunately) your parasympathetic is once again up and running efficiently.
Because we can understand the two contrasting functions of our nervous system, we can also manipulate it. Your system chooses whether to engage the sympathetic or parasympathetic by assessing your environment. You either acknowledge there is no immediate threat or you neutralize said threat. In these days of COVID, the threat is real, and it cannot be neutralized - at least not for the foreseeable future. It's a never ending night, and we haven't invented fire yet. Our only recourse is to stay inside the safety of our caves. The predator outside our cave is invisible and misunderstood and everywhere. Panic, right? Well, seeing as we have little control over neutralizing the threat, we need to trick our system into feeling as though threat doesn't exist.
Hacking your system.
So, right now, wherever you are, take a deep, slow breath. In through the nose, out through the nose. You are calm. Eyes open, soft gaze. No need for mouth breathing - you aren't being chased.
The action should be coming from your diaphragm (though I'm not going to be super picky with you right now). Just visualize the breath coming from your belly - not your chest. You can place one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. Your belly is soft (no points for 6-packs here). Feel your stomach rise and fall, but keep the movement out of your chest and neck. Basically, make sure your clavicles (collar bones) aren't rising and falling with the breath.
Taking a deep breath like this activates your vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps to regulate many critical aspects of your physiology, including heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, immune function, even sexual impulses and speaking. Again, immune function. When we are constantly stressed, our immune system checks out.
When we take a deep breath, we regulate our physical being such that our bodies believe the threat is gone."Oh, we're breathing slowly, deeply, controlled. We can't be running. Ergo, there is no sabertooth tiger."
I bet my elbow in your ass cheek sounds pretty good right now, eh?
Breathe, luv. Just breathe.