Two phrases that helped me learn how changing my breath could change my mood
Read time 5 mins
There are two things that I have been told about breath and mental health that have really stuck with me over the years. The first one I will share with you now, and the second, I will share with you further on in this blog.
- Changes in the breath gain immediate attention from the brain, because in essence, no breath, no life. The brain has a vested interest in listening to the signals from the lungs, as oxygen is essential for brain cell survival. I had previously read that one of the fastest ways to change your mood was through changing your breathing, but it hadn’t really made sense to me. This small fact helped me start to understand the brain lung connection, as I began to piece together information about how my body and brain respond to stress.
Up until my late thirties I had spent my life sucking my tummy in, breathing high in my chest and holding my breath when things got challenging. I was however, totally oblivious to the fact that I was doing these things. In actual fact, I had taught myself to reverse breathe (which is the opposite of how we breathe as newborns.) Breathing from the belly, on an in breath, meant having my belly relaxed, and that didn’t fit the messages I had learnt over the years about how women’s bodies should ideally look. Back then, I had little connection with my body, or any real understanding of how the brain and body all worked together as one amazing unit.
Wind the clock forward and I now use my breath to help me with a number of aspects of my life. Needless to say, I don’t care as much about how my belly looks and I focus more on how I want to feel instead. Happy is beautiful is my new mantra. Now I breathe deeply and slowly when I feel stressed, extending my out breath to be longer than my inbreath. I take equal timed in and out breaths when I want to feel balanced, and I use short sharp out breaths when I want and need more energy. Having control over my breath is one thing I can control in my life and realizing how quickly this works on energy levels and mood has been a revelation to me.
2. You can trick your brain into thinking you are calm through changing your breathing. Your brain only knows what your lungs tell it; tell it you are calm through slow deep breaths and soon you will feel calm.
During a phase of having panic attacks, (particularly during motorway driving) my sister shared this reflection with me, which was shared with her by another breath coach. Changing my breathing was the only thing that worked for me during those times. It helped bring my attention back into my body and slowly I knew that if I kept doing the deep slow breathing, I would start to feel calm again. Soon I was able to get back in the car, but only if I sang cheesy ballads, loudly, that kept my mind focused and my breaths long.
There is a growing evidence base from neuroscience to help us understand what ancient techniques such as yoga and tai chi have been showing us for centuries. It involves learning about the nervous system and the complex brain body connection that exists in us all, but I will save that for another blog.
What I will offer you now however are a few ideas you might want to try, using your breath as a vehicle for mood change. Notice the breath ratio in each of the examples, longer out breath for calm, equal breath for balance, and longer in breath for energy.
Need to relax or feel calmer
Try the 4:8 ratio…breathe in for 4 through the nose (imagine smelling a beautiful flower) and breathe out for 8 with pursed lips (you can imagine blowing out a candle if that helps). If 8 is too much to begin with, try 4:6 and work up to 8.
Want to feel more balanced and increase your resilience
Try Coherent Breathing. Start by paying attention to your breath, then slowly breathe in through the nose on a count of 4, and then out for a count of 4. Do this a few times and focus on the breaths being gentle and effortless, and located in the belly. Once that feels easy, you can work your way up to a count of 6 if that feel better.
Want to feel more energized
Try the elephant breath. Stand with your feet wide apart, link your hands and dangle them in front of you like an elephant trunk. Breathe in through your nose, raising your arms high above your head and lean back. Breathe out through your mouth as you swing your arms down through your legs, repeat for a few rounds and then notice how you feel.