By Nelson Vinod Moses
Breath is life.
Within the first 10-40 seconds of being born we inhale, taking in our first breath, and continue to breathe, till the day we die, when we exhale, pushing out one final breath. Without breathing our hearts will fail, our brain die, and the rest of the vital organs stop functioning.
In between life and death we breathe millions of times. We generally complete one breathing cycle every 3 seconds. That’s 20 breaths a minute, multiply that by 60 minutes, and you have 1200 an hour. Everyday we breathe 28,800 times and every year we take 10,519,200 breaths. Taking into account WHO estimates of 71.4 years, as the average global lifespan, a human breathes 751 million times in a lifetime.
While we breathe 100s of millions of times, almost all of us do it inefficiently, and with a lack of mindfulness. “Breathing is a basic life function and the quality of our life depends on the way we learn to handle our breath,” says Dr. Alok Kulkarni, Consultant Psychiatrist, Seraniti. Most of the time we don’t know how to control our breath and are instead governed by external factors.
Our emotions have a direct line to our diaphragm and our breathing rises and falls depending on how we are feeling. We may not always notice it, but we breathe faster, slower or evenly, based on our thoughts and feelings. “If we are stressed or immersed in negative mood states like depression and anxiety, then our pattern of breathing becomes rapid and shallower,” adds Dr. Alok. This is reversed when we are calm; our breathing is slower, and deeper.
“Breathing is a basic life function and the quality of our life depends on the way we learn to handle our breath. Most of the time we don’t know how to control our breath and are instead governed by external factors.”
Parth Kalia, Associate Integrative Therapist, Seraniti makes an important point in the role that breath plays in our lives. He says that its an alarm system that serves as the most basic physical warning signs; of stress, anxiety or emotional disturbances. Negative emotions affect our breathing, and our breathing can wreak havoc on our bodies, and mental state. Think about what happens when we are anxious or depressed, breathing slows, becomes shallow, resulting in less oxygen to our brains. Each shallow breath makes us further stressed because we start to hyperventilate. There is carbon dioxide build-up, and the body asks for more oxygen, and we inhale. Since we are breathing shallowly, the lungs do not expel all the carbon dioxide, and there’s not enough space for oxygen to fill the lungs up.
The extremity of anxiety is a panic attack, which can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, blurred vision, chest pain, inability to focus, and fatigue. When we struggle for breath, our lungs wheeze, and panic begets more panic.
The link between shallow breathing and stress, anxiety and panic is a vicious cycle. But it can be broken and the tables turned on our emotions, which pull the strings on our breathing. For this we need to learn to control our breathing, by taking long, deep, slow breaths. That’s is why anybody with basic knowledge of first aid will tell you to: “Just breathe.” Pregnant women who are about to deliver are told to take deep breaths and push. Doctors will tell patients who are about to get operated to breath deeply, slowly and deliberately. By focusing on our breath cycle, the mind calms down, we stop being a slave to our emotions, and get back into the driver’s seat.
Parth states that the ability to regulate breathing can lend us greater control over our overall emotional state. Deep breathing, according to Parth introduces large amounts of oxygen to our bodies that has its own calming effect, however, the act of deep breathing, more importantly, refocuses our attention to our body and draws our mind away from other stressors and factors that are causing us unease.
“The link between shallow breathing and stress, anxiety and panic is a vicious cycle. But it can be broken and the tables turned on our emotions, which pull the strings on our breathing. For this we need to learn to control our breathing, by taking long, deep, slow breaths.”
Slow, deep breaths to the bottom of our lungs where our diaphragm lies is the key to this. Yogis knew about the power of the breath and used it wisely. From time immemorial, in ancient India, yogis have used breathing to attain calm, peace and equanimity. The power of the breath is not only life giving but breathes life into our anxious lives. Deep breathing relaxes our muscles and reduces the tension which signals the brain that it’s a non threatening situation. Each deep breath increases oxygen flow from the heart to the brain, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and helps us calm down. Not only that it boosts cognitive and physiological abilities, releases endorphins, expels toxins from the blood, helps build muscle, helps prevent heart disease and improves digestion.
Yoga is perfect for this as it is mostly about controlling breath. “Certain yogic exercises like pranayama have been shown to be highly effective in controlling anxiety. When one is faced with a panic attack, one is frequently advised to take a few deep breaths which helps one to ease the tension. Regular practice of deep breathing has a definitive role in allaying anxiety. Guidance from trained practitioners is recommended,” says Dr. Alok.
“Divyasri Chakraborty, Trainee Therapist, Seraniti believes breathing maintains the harmony and rhythm in our life and synchronizes us with the external world. Breathing is an important way to maintain balance.”
Science backs up what yoga has known for centuries. A recent study published in the magazine Science found a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that initiates breathing, The scientists behind the study found that the cluster directly projects to a brain center that plays a key role in generalized alertness, attention, and stress. Meaning, these neurons that regulate breathing, have a direct connection to the arousal center of the brain, and breathing can have a direct effect on the overall activity level of the brain. Mice where these neurons were removed remained calm even in situations that they might normally found stressful.
Deep breathing not only betters the quality of our lives but also the quantity. According to Dr. Alok, people who have fewer breath cycles per minute go onto live longer lives, as it is a direct sign of one’s longevity. Divyasri Chakraborty, Trainee Therapist, Seraniti believes breathing maintains the harmony and rhythm in our life and synchronizes us with the external world. Breathing is an important way to maintain balance.
How can one mindfully practice deep breathing?
Here’s a six step guide by Parth.
1) Find someplace to sit or lie down undisturbed.
2) If seated, arch your back and allow your spine to settle naturally.
3) Take deep slow breaths counting from 1 to 4 in and then 1 to 4 while breathing out.
4) Focus on your body. Your rising and lowering diaphragm, your chest, your nose, your posture.
5) Draw your attention only to the moment and to your body. Its ok to be briefly distracted, but if you find yourself doing that, just calmly bring yourself back to your breath.
6) Guided meditation tapes can be useful in this process.
7) Do this for 20-30 minutes at the beginning or the end of the day.
About the author
Nelson Vinod Moses is a Bangalore-based, award-winning mental health journalist, and Founder of Suicide Prevention India Foundation. His writing has been featured in Fortune, Quartz, The Times of India, HuffingtonPost, and many other publications. He is on a quest to bring mental health conversations out in the open, improving mental health literacy, and talking about the importance of mental health self-care.