By Tracey Stover
After two years of pandemic stress, lockdowns, and mask wearing, most people are breathing shallow, contracted breaths. This is what happens under extreme stress. Pre-pandemic, the average person accessed 20-40% of their breath capacity, depending on whether they held trauma or were managing daily life stressors. Can you imagine what it is like now? It is really time to reinvigorate our breathing.
Breath is life, literally. Most of us would expire after three minutes of not breathing. Knowing the quality of our breath is vital; it tells the story of how we live our lives. When we experience trauma, stress, or repeated stressful thoughts, our breath takes on that tension and becomes constricted and shallow.
How does tension prevent us from breathing deeply? We hold our breath to prevent feeling the pain of trauma or stressful thoughts of grief, anger, or self-loathing, to name a few. Under this strain, our breath becomes shallow. Repeated shallow breathing acts like a rope around our lungs, and diminishes our energy. If we do not address this “metaphoric rope,” it gets tighter over time, decreasing oxygen flow to the body and affecting every metabolic process, which is the precursor to chronic illness.
When we breathe deeply, the movement of the diaphragm triggers the vagus nerve – which tells most major organs to relax – letting the body know you have it under control. This is how the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated.
We want to train ourselves to do this at will. This is, in fact, one of the breath’s super-powers. To switch off the flight, fright, freeze response, and turn on the rest and digest mode, which is how we access peace and calm. We can learn to turn off the stress.
How can we bring the breath back online? We have to know the quality of our breathing. Has there been trauma, long ago or recent? One client in his 60s had a severe burn accident when he was 8 years old. He was at peace with the incident, but his breath was still holding the trauma. After a few sessions, it was integrated. He could not believe how free he felt. Nor could he believe he had lived most of his life with a deep sense of oppression. We can talk through our troubles, but not until the breath pattern is cleared do we feel truly free.
For others, it takes more time to unwind the stressful thinking behind the challenging events. Breathing and thinking cannot be separated. For most, having a deeper breath is not just a physiological issue. The good news is that the breath wants to be open, and the body wants to heal. If you are ready, the heart-mind connection will support the journey.
Remember, breath is life. For example, how deeply we breathe helps direct how well the lymph will flow, and lymph flow relates directly to immunity. As we exit the pandemic, we want to make sure the breath is free of constriction and tension; we want to make sure we are breathing deeply.
Test yourself for a deep breath: Are you winded going up a flight of stairs? Do you have the energy to do your daily activities? Do you feel generally happy about life?
An exercise: Put one hand on your lower abdomen and one hand on your heart, take a breath, and notice what moves and what does not. Did the lower abdomen move? Did the heart area move? A little, a lot? A deep breath expands the lower abdomen, reaches into the sides of the ribs and crests on the shoulders. The exhale is relaxed like a silent sigh. A deep breath feels like you massaged yourself from the inside-out.
The power of the breath is the best-kept secret, hidden right beneath your nose. Know thy breath. For as you breathe, so you become.
Tracey Stover, MA maintains a breath practice in Seattle and on Vashon. She facilitates private sessions, group classes, and trains others. You can learn more about Tracey’s work at www.breathingmandala.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.