Our brains normally control our breathing automatically. At the base of the brain is the brain stem, which includes the medulla oblongata, which monitors things like carbon dioxide levels in the blood and signals the lungs to adjust as appropriate.
According to Doctor Matthew MacKinnon, taking control of your breathing for a while can be relaxing and calming. Let’s give it a test. Beginning right now, sit up straight, relax your shoulders, put your hands in your lap. Exhale and empty your lungs. Take a slow deep breath. Try to count slowly up to four as you inhale. Hold your breath for a count of four, then slowly exhale counting 1 2 3 4. Repeat ten times.
By the time you complete ten reps, you’ve probably cut your respiration rate from about fifteen breaths per minute to six. If you’ve followed along, you should be more relaxed and concentrating better. The Navy Seals call this technique four-box breathing and use it to calm down and focus. And they are likely in more high-pressure situations than the rest of us ever face. If it works for them…
Back to Doctor MacKinnon. He uses an auto metaphor: the sympathetic nervous system is an analog to the gas pedal, while the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. Sensors in our lungs use the sympathetic system to notify the brain stem that our lungs need to expand, e.g.-put on the gas. Then the parasympathetic system kicks in telling the lungs to put on the brakes. When contracting, the lungs push the blood, freshly filled with oxygen, throughout the body. By consciously instituting deep breathing, we take control away from the brain stem temporarily and give everything an oxygen booster shot. Further, by relaxing and remaining still, we reduce the need for oxygen.
Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the New York Medical School, is a founder of Breath Body Mind. She is a medical practitioner of Integrative Psychiatry, using a holistic approach to restore and maintain health. She employs a similar technique called pranayama breathing. Pranayama is a Sanskrit term that has been translated in multiple ways. For our purposes, let’s say it is a method to control breathing to extend the time of each part: inhalation, retention and exhalation. Dr. Gottfried’s work noted the effect of breathing on parts of the limbic regions of the brain. According to Dr. Gerbarg, the slow breathing technique of pranayama can have a further beneficial effect. In her view, it is likely that vibrations in the larynx cause signals to be sent to the vagus nerve that in turn help create a calming effect.
When you need to concentrate, calm down when feeling stressed, or need to create some energy, listen to the doctors. Inhale, hold it, exhale.
Want to learn more about deep breathing, better focus and other benefits of meditation? We love Suze Yalof Schwartz’ book unplug.
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