3 Breathing Techniques to Calm Your Nervous System
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It was a rough week this week. Something happened at work that was quite triggering. Long story short, racism.
It’s so hard to describe what I feel. Depression, despair, anger, abuse. The feeling of someone trying to control my body when they have no ownership whatsoever over it. The feeling of someone who won’t hear my story because their mind was already made up.
The feeling of being criminalized for merely existing. The feeling of being blamed for something that was out of my control.
The feeling of knowing others could have chimed in to help, but didn’t.
Deep in my bones I know what it is. It’s painful and it feels like grief.
This post isn’t supposed to be about racism, it’s supposed to be about the breath. Breathing has felt so hard this week, like a chore. My breath has been really short ever since the incident. It makes me sad.
But breathing can also calm our nervous systems so that we can restore homeostasis, as well as connect to a source of Love or higher power beyond our physical reality.
Creative solutions pop up for us when we calm our nervous systems, as we transition from flight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous system) to rest-and-digest (parasympathetic nervous system). The breath is the connector here.
Today we will talk about 3 breathing techniques you can use any time you feel your nervous system is out of whack.
Technique #1: Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
I learned about this in yoga and ayurveda classes I’ve taken over the years. In Sanskrit, Nadi means river or subtle channel, and Shodhana means to cleanse or purify. This breath can really help to calm your nervous system and slow your brain down. I find it to be very grounding.
What You’ll Do:
- Using your right hand, bend down the index and middle fingers
- Exhale completely. Place your right hand up to your nose
- Close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale slowly through your left nostril
- At the top of your breath, close your left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril
- Inhale through your right nostril
- At the top of the breath, close your right nostril with your thumb
- Then exhale through your left nostril
This is considered one cycle. Repeat up to 9 times, or as many times as you need to feel more grounded and at peace.
If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, feel free to take a break and restart when you feel better.
Technique #2: Boxed Breathing
Another simple technique - you breathe in deeply for a count of 4, hold your breath at the top of the breath for 4 counts, then exhale for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts.
Repeat for as many times as you need.
Modification: you can start with counts of 4, and after a few rounds, move to counts of 5, then after a few rounds, counts of 6.
Another modification: you can inhale for counts of 4-6, and exhale for longer, such as counts of 6-8. Exhaling for longer can really help to decrease stress levels. Usually during anxiety our breaths can get very short and ineffective.
Technique #3: Mindfulness of Breath
Simple does not always mean easy. However, with practice, this can start to become more natural. Mindfulness of breath is simply noticing what the breath is doing, without having to change it. The breath can be a wonderful anchor to the present moment and an indicator of what is going on for you in the present moment.
Mindfulness of breath is my favorite mindfulness technique. It makes me feel so good.
The breath is always there, we just have to notice it. When you start to connect to the breath, the mind starts to ease.
The breath also unites us to a universal consciousness. The breath can help us find our peace within.
What You’ll Do:
- Sit in a comfortable, seated position. Close your eyes, or lower your gaze to the floor or other anchor point
- Take a couple of deep breaths in, just to get situated. Breathing in and breathing out through the nose
- Then notice what the breath is doing at this moment. Is it long or short? Deep or shallow? Warm or cool? Expansive or contractive?
- Where in the body do you feel the breath? The nose, the throat, the chest, perhaps the abdomen? Which body parts move when you breathe in and out?
- Feel into the breath coming into and out of your nose. What is the temperature of the breath?
- Spent a few moments here noticing. When your mind has wandered (which is what is designed to do), notice and gently bring the awareness back to the breath and the body
- Remember, this is a practice, and it's not about being perfect
- When you’re ready, gently open the eyes
You can set a timer here or use a guided meditation too. There are many free guided meditations on YouTube or Insight Timer (app).
If you’re brave, try it without a timer and see how long feels good to you. I’ve found that if I don’t set a timer, I tend to go a bit longer. It feels good! I usually have to set an alarm at work or before work for obvious reasons.
The Bottom Line
No matter what you are going through, the breath is always available to you. Use it and see how it makes you feel. At first, it might seem kinda pointless or ineffective. But with practice, it becomes medicine.
The breath is the most inexpensive, accessible piece of medicine we could have dreamed of. (Cheap tip coming from a clinical pharmacist 😉)
The breath is healing. It soothes you and restores you to your true, loving Self. From there, you can receive creative solutions and guidance from the universe, as well as heal your pain.
Just you and your comforting, luxurious breath to nourish your mind, body, and soul.
The breath is a uniter, not a divider.
I hope everyone has a great week!
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
- Mahabir, Nicole. "From fight or flight to rest and digest: How to reset your nervous system with breath". CBC Life. https://www.cbc.ca/life/wellness/from-fight-or-flight-to-rest-and-digest-how-to-reset-your-nervous-system-with-the-breath-1.4485695. Date Accessed: Aug 20, 2022.
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