The Calming Breath
Psycho-neurobiology tells us that traumatic stress from an incident or living in a highly stressful environment or under highly stressful in conditions puts our bodies into survival – fight or flight -- which is the sympathetic nervous system at work.
When Fight or Flight is the constant, the parasympathetic nervous system is weakened and the self soothing hormones it initiates are unavailable. One of the first and best ways to strengthen the self soothing system is by consciously slowing the breath. We call this practice The Calming Breathe – a five minute exercise done twice a day.
Like any exercise program, building strength and resilience will take time. You will feel better quickly but it won’t “hold” without practice because it is the practice of the Calming Breathe that gives it strength. It can be practiced anywhere, anytime you need it.
Aside from being relaxing, the Calming Breath has many proven health and mental health benefits including lowering blood pressure, alleviating feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Breathing is one of the few things that we do automatically that we can also do consciously. Breath and image are the pillars through which we enter the unconscious to access its gifts.
Many of our combat vets, refugees, inner city residents, Native Americans and overworked Americans – just a few groups vulnerable to serious stress reactions – live in fight/flight/freeze response, leaving the weakened Self Calming (parasympathetic nervous) system to be accessed only through drugs, alcohol or high risk behavior. High risk behavior produces enough adrenaline to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which will initiate self calming hormones.
Reminder: because it takes time to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, we need to practice the Calming Breath twice every day. Otherwise we remain in a high alert mode scanning our environment asking with our behavior, am I safe, am I safe, am I safe?
Getting ready to do the Calming Breath:
1. Be aware of your breathing. Awareness is a very important beginning step. Focus on your breath to get a sense of how you breathe ordinarily. Don’t try to change anything. Just notice. Do you breathe with your chest primarily? Do you breathe with your belly? Just notice. Then check your body to see where your shoulders are.
2. Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit with a straight spine, feet on the floor – make sure your legs aren’t crossed. Pull back your shoulders as you sit up straight. You can let your hands sit on your legs with palms up.
Doing the Calming Breathe:
1. Close you eyes or focus, eyes open, on a soothing image or on something soothing. Breathe by filling your belly and as you do this allow the breath to move up into your chest and lungs. Always breathe into your belly first! When your lungs are full, stop and hold the breath for 2 seconds. You can lengthen the time as you practice to whatever pause is comfortable for you. Don’t push.
2. Put your tongue on the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth. Take another deep breath through your nose filling your belly and let it out smoothly and easily through your mouth with your lips almost closed.
3. At the end of the exhalation gently squeeze your ribs tightly and pull in your belly to empty your lungs while quietly repeating the sound lalalalalalalalala which allows the exhalation to smoothly empty your lungs.
4. Pause for two seconds.
5. Then relax and allow your belly and lungs to smoothly inflate/inhale.
Start with eyes closed or focus on something soothing in your environment while you breathe in to the count of four, holding it for the count of three and exhaling to the count of 7 if you can and hold the breath for three counts if you can. As you do this more easily you can extend the count to a place that works for you.
The breath work should be customized to meet your needs. Do this twice a day for about five minutes. It is more important that you keep these morning and evening dates with yourself than it is to do the breath work for the five minutes suggested. Spend the time that is realistic even if only two minutes to begin with and do not go longer than 20 minutes. Be realistic about the amount of time you will REALLY spend so that you are sure to keep this date with yourself. This is not a contest but a support and strengthening of your own natural ability to calm yourself while under stress and reduce or eliminate symptoms of PTS.
It is more important that you keep these morning and evening dates with yourself than it is to work to extend the time. You do not want to push the time limit. If you push at all, it should be to just keep your date with yourself to breathe deeply, quietly, regularly and smoothly.
To repeat: these are the guiding words for The Calming Breath -- smooth, deep, regular and very quiet. As you focus on breathing slowly, deeply (belly), regularly (rhythmically) and quietly, it is easier to keep your attention on your breath. When you find your attention has wandered away from noticing your breathe, just quietly say “thinking” and return your attention to your breath.
This is a gift you can give to yourself. It serves the whole family well. Teach them as you learn. What better gift to give than the skills to calm and comfort yourself?