We have many useful tools in medicine to measure, alter and medicate physical symptoms that cause us discomfort or greater health risks when unattended to. That said, it is unpractical to see our doctor for everything and emerging methods in biofeedback, self-care training, and the acknowledged benefits of both training and recovery have greatly improved our ability to self-regulate numerous physical, mental and emotional systems employed daily in our lives.
Consider the Biofeedback involved monitoring our breathing pattern or respiration rate. More elaborate technology allows us to measure cervical, thoraxic and abdominal breathing in conjunction with each respiration. This can be very helpful in some circumstances, but for the vast majority of us – just knowing our respiration rate can be very informative…. especially when monitored under varying circumstance.
We know that our heart rate, respiration rate and hormonal activity surges during the stress response, but how much? Charting this information can be easily done, and that data can offer us some useful insights as to “how” we might structure strategies and techniques in managing stress and controlling our arousal level.
Respiration rate, like height and weight, can be charted on a Bell curve allowing for a mean, median and standard deviations accounting for the full range of respiration rates as documented through numerous studies of respiratory function. Knowing someone’s base respiration rate gives us a useful benchmark in understanding that person’s “normal respiration rate” and how much it might vary under situations of extreme stress, or, very relaxed conditions as well.
An average respiration rate for an adult at rest is likely between 12 and 16 respirations in a given minute. In a stressful state that might increase to 20 to 25 respirations per minute. Are people conscious of their respiration rate? Usually not.
It is important to realize that breathing patterns can be learned. To alter a breathing pattern, it must be practiced frequently. An individual who has trained themselves to focus their attention on their breathing will become immediately more aware. If they engage in routine mindfulness monitoring and shifting breathing patterns, working toward mastery, they will become quite skilled. The development of a skill that often operates below a conscious level will require discipline and attention to detail. Becoming skilled at this is an important tool for making routine adjustments for managing both their stress load and arousal level in an effective fashion.
Slowing down one’s respiration rate is like putting the brakes on the nervous system and it encourages the individual to self-regulate mindfully when their stress levels rise. Unconsciously, elevated stress levels cause breathing patterns to hurry up, to increase in frequency and cause a condition called “overbreathing”. This results in hypocapnia (CO2 deficiency) which actually reduces cell oxygenation that can ultimately lead to hyperventilating. Hence, it actually increases the degree of stress load appropriate for the circumstance. Research is prevalent in showing slower and easier breathing patterns improve cell-oxygen content.
Technique 1 – Belly button breath: Place your hand on top of your navel and breath gently and easily into your belly observing your hand rise and fall gently with each inhale and exhale.
The voluntary nervous system has a unique ability to over-ride stress breathing. By incorporating selective relaxation of certain key muscle groups and mindfully focusing on certain cues while engaged in a particular type of breathing, one can significantly minimize the experience of stress.
Certain key muscle groups are associated with the tension routinely triggered by the “fight or flight” response. These muscle groups include the jaw, shoulders, hands, pelvic floor and feet. Primarily the jaw and pelvic floor are engaged because of how the autonomic nervous system’s primary neural feeds stimulate the internal organs from both above and below. By selectively reducing neuromuscular tension and bracing patterns engaged in those particular muscle groups we can begin to gain control in reducing the sympathetic arousal associated with extreme stress.
Relaxing these muscle groups is far from automatic. Our personal level of awareness and frequency of practice will make a big difference in how efficiently this can be accomplished. Many of us will need to engage in a “Progressive Muscular Relaxation”, a technique that involves purposeful tensing of each muscle group – immediately followed by a relaxation response in the same muscle group. This alternating experience of tension-then-followed-by-relaxation enables us to acquire greater sensitivity in “how” each of these sensations “feel” differently.
Once these muscle groups are following a quick scan through the body (relaxing the jaw, shoulders, hands, pelvic floor and feet) has been completed, the focus turns to the breath.
Begin by focusing attention on the lower abdomen inhaling gently into the belly on up into a heavy sigh. Our bodies will often engage in a sigh, as a method of calling for more oxygen. A “stretch” of the inhale in a breath causes the diaphragm lungs and rib cage to expand approximately 20% more than a routine breath. This stretch also helps us to become more aware of the unique pattern of breathing we are engaging.
Mindfulness of this sort also enables us to really notice what it feels like once beginning the exhale. Generally, we are likely to feel a sensation of everything dropping inside our torso and the exhalation brings our attention deeper into the diaphragm itself. I’ve had many describe this sensation as a release of tension inside the rib cage. More specifically it is likely to feel like we are “letting go, letting go, letting go” of all tension as our breath drops down into the abdomen again.
By following that receding breath all the way down into the base of the stomach one is likely to experience their ‘center.’ A location associated with the source of ‘chi’ in Chinese medicine. It is there we should pause, and embrace the emptiness. Hence, “The Centering Breath” is aptly named.
Technique 2 – Relax the jaw, shoulders, hands, pelvic floor, and feet. Take a nice slow breath into the lower abdomen inhaling up to a sigh. Notice how our awareness then shifts to letting go of all tension following the exhale until we reach a sense of empty.
This part of the breath – the “letting go” – is most often perceived by people as that sensation of “everything dropping down inside the torso”. That sensation is key. It is the experience of what’s technically known as the parasympathetic calming response.
At the end of the exhale, put a period on the end of the sentence. Pause there momentarily to acknowledge the completion of the breath. Notice the emptiness. Embrace the sensation of being at our center. In martial arts, this spot is often known as the source of “Chi”, in Chinese martial arts its where the dragon resides. Most just refer to it as the “Center.”
A well known by-product of altering our breathing in such a way is the reduction in our respiration rate. This routine can easily slow our breathing pattern by 50-100% of normal. This not only reduces our stress level but it often brings us to a much better place of balance. Our focus on where we finish the breath is almost always close to the navel perhaps a little more central to the core where optimal balance is often achieved.
Breathe your way to a better, more calming life.
Dr. Stephen Walker is an award-winning sport & performance consultant whose clients have reached the Podium in world championships, the Olympics and, performed in the Kennedy Center Philharmonic, in their chosen endeavors.
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