What’s the one thing we could all try today, that’s free and could have the most profound impact on our lives?
Yes, yes, you’re doing it right now and yes, it’s part of the autonomic nervous system so your body does it without you having to even think about it. And I hear you – we’re in the middle of a time of great uncertainty and you’d really prefer not to be patronised today. Which is why I too have always rolled my eyes in the past whenever someone has suggested I take a few deep breaths. CAN’T YOU SEE I’M STRESSED/ANGRY/UPSET?! Let me vent! Don’t tell me to calm down and breathe!!!
But then I listened intently to a RNZ interview about the science of breathing, and promptly read a book on the subject. When I heard that next week is ‘Take a Breath’ week, I shot my hand up to speak to the face and brains behind it, Sarah Laurie.
Sarah says that knowing how to breathe correctly, and putting that into action is one of, if not the biggest tool we can use to reduce our stress and anxiety, and improve our overall wellbeing.
First things first, Sarah’s initiatives are entirely based on science. She’s created an app to help you keep record of your breathing journey, with plenty of information about how to do it correctly to achieve the best results possible. Among those who worked on the project are a breathing physician from Stanford, and a neuroscientist from Berkley University.
They tested the app on a group who used it consistently for seven days – and they had some quite extraordinary results. The findings – which were self-reported – showed 76% had improved their sleep within the seven days; 83% reported increased energy and a whopping 96% said they felt more calm.
The simple breath is becoming one of the most researched medical tools of late, with Sarah’s team also researching its impact on conditions like COPD, heart disease and blood pressure. Other studies, which were reported on in James Nestor’s book, Breathe, have found that making even slight adjustments to the way we breath can have far reaching effects, from jump-starting athletic performance to halting asthma and autoimmune disease. It can even straighten scoliotic spines.
So how can breathing have such a profound impact?
“The thing a lot of people don’t know is that when we breathe well, that’s actually instruction to our body for everything to work as it should – and that’s every biological system,” Sarah explains.
“When we breathe into our chest that’s actually a signal to our body to switch certain ones off, because when we’re in our stress response state our body isn’t supposed to do all of those things. So the breath really is responsible for the switching on and switching off of our stress response.”
If you’re unsure if you’re breathing correctly and efficiently, Sarah has a simple test for you – place one hand on your chest, the second on your stomach and breathe in. Most of us will feel that top hand on our chest rise, whereas what we should feel is our stomach expanding.
It takes some practice and reminding (which is where the app comes in), but if you persevere you can arrive at a place where your body does it automatically for you. We know it’s possible, because it’s actually how we were born – we each came into this world we instinctively knew how to breathe correctly. But, over time in western culture, we’ve become panicky chest breathers which is not only exacerbating (or perhaps even causing) illnesses and diseases, but it’s causing us to become permanently stressed and anxious.
“It’s a very 21st century problem – particularly in the last few decades in western culture,” says Sarah. “We’re always in a race. And that state has shifted our breathing up into our chest and then it’s held us in that state. It’s happened without us realising and has become part of our autonomic nervous system. Even as I say this now, I know the idea that if we breathe well that will change our entire state seems hard to fathom. It doesn’t seem rigorous enough that it’s just as simple as breathing. But that’s what we need to start relearning. Breathing is very intricate and complex – it’s simply done if you know how to do it – but it has a very intricate and complex psychological response when we do it well.”
For many, today might be shaping up to be a stressful day as we worry about what the latest Covid-19 lockdown level announcement might include (or the MANY tiny and large stresses that we’re each carrying around!). But the best thing we can do, is breathe.
When this lockdown was first announced, it was suggested to Sarah that ‘Take a Breath’ week might need to be pushed out for a week or two because people don’t really have the bandwidth to get their head around this.
“That’s the absolute irony – and it’s the case with a lot of interventions that we bring into our life in order to manage our stress or anxiety,” says Sarah. “We think we’ve got to have the space to do it. And that’s the paradox, because we’re so overwhelmed, we don’t think we’ve got the space to do it. But the idea about the way we breath is we don’t stop what we’re doing. You might be sitting at the table with your children trying to help them with their homework, or sitting on a zoom meeting, but as we’re doing those things, we can be breathing into our tummies. And if we can continue to practice doing that, we can change our state.”
Sarah’s app is available for download now. To find out more about Take a Breath week, see the official website which includes information on how to register for one of her free seminars throughout NZ.