“I’m still alive but I’m barely breathin’…”
He’s singing about a breakup, but the first line of this popular song is actually a pretty accurate description of our stressed out culture. Not you? Bet you know someone. In fact, research by the World Health Organization suggests 1 in 5 people suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
“We now live in a digitally-obsessed, escape-based society”, says Max Strom, an educator and author of “A Life Worth Breathing”. He says while some may shrug and call this the new normal, we simultaneously report record levels of unhappiness. And we’re sick – despite access to an overly obliging pharmaceutical industry. We’re holding our breath as we worry – about jobs, kids, family, health…name your stressor. (Listening to Max Strom might help calm you down.)
Holding your breath or even just shallow breathing is a common, normal response to a stressful situation. Associated with states of anticipation or anxiousness in the midst of unknowns, shallow breathing is part of our fight/flight response that includes the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. What’s not normal is if we perceive so much of daily life as stressful that we spend inordinate amounts of time in this state.
For many, what is meant to be a helpful, short-lived physiological reaction to a specific event has morphed into a drawn-out response to life itself. Normally our body moves between varying states of heightened awareness and readiness and relaxed recovery and balance.These are two very different physical states. For example: slamming your brakes in rush hour to avoid hitting the car in front of you, versus cruising on a long, open road with the top down, vacation mode. Your breathing in these two states is controlled by your autonomic nervous system, designed to operate primarily independent of thought, like the beating of your heart and the digestion of food.
But what if the thoughts we attach to all day create a state of chronic worry? Or in the case of trauma survivors, the body gets stuck in a state of alert and alarm? The balancing, restorative effects of deep and rhythmic breathing don’t return, causing significant wear (aka aging). This stresses your heart, clouds your thinking, depresses your immunity, dampens your spirit and more. A wrecking ball for body and mind.
The good news: we can exert considerable control of our breathing to change our state and moderate these symptoms. You can develop this most effective tool (free, immediate, no negative side effects) for managing uncomfortable situations and emotions, and if practiced regularly, dramatically and demonstrably improve your health and longevity over the longer term.
The idea for this post came about after laughing with a client over how often we remind people to breathe while they’re working out. While it may seem silly that we need to learn how to breathe – we weren’t taught to take our first breath – most of us can catch ourselves holding our breath, or barely breathing at all. Can you remember the last time you took a deep breath? Do you remember how your body changed when you did?
In an effort to address the rising suicide rate amongst veterans, Stanford University is using breathing exercises to help veterans with PTSD. That’s not silly. That’s life saving. The UMass Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness has helped thousands with their Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, of which breathwork is a major component.
“Reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it.” We can laugh when we catch ourselves holding our breath during a workout. But we can’t hold our breath through life. While there are numerous methods for escaping, if that is not an option for you, what’s your plan? Take a deep breath and think about it.
More: How you are breathing and how you should be breathing. (Shorter than the Max Strom talk.)
Also: we’ve got a mindfulness and breathwork workshop in the works for this fall. More to come.