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For the life of you, breathe

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

“No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or wise you are, none of it matters if you’re not breathing properly.”[1] (James Nestor, 2020).

When was the last time you took a really good deep breath of fresh air?

Breathing is the essential element of life but how many of us pay any attention to it? After all, the human race has been breathing since birth, so why should we spend any time thinking about it now?

Of all the species on the planet, we humans are the only ones who cook our food, which means we don’t need to use our teeth and jaws as much as other species. Then we talk in many different languages and vocabularies, which over time, has lowered the position of our larynx. With these developments, the size of our brains has increased, leaving less space for nasal passages and airflow. Skulls from our ancestors show straight teeth and large nasal passages, leading to the conclusion that they probably did not snore [2]. Evolutionary changes are not unilaterally or necessarily for the better.

“Breathing is [....] more than just moving the diaphragm downward and sucking in air to feed hungry cells and remove wastes. The tens of billions of molecules we bring into our bodies with every breath [...] influence nearly every internal organ, telling them when to turn on and off. They affect heart rate, digestion, moods, attitudes, when we feel aroused, and when we feel nauseated.[3]

Our breath is the switch for our feelings and emotions – the warm fuzzy ones such as tears at a wedding or the relaxing comfort of a bubble bath on one side, and on the other, the fright, flight or fight reaction to an unpleasantness or scare. Once learned, the lazy brain stores this protective reaction – as it was in the earliest days of humanity - and even begins to anticipate a negative experience before anything occurs. Have you ever wished you could stay in bed, for example, to avoid a meeting that you expect to be awful? The day hasn’t started but by expecting the worst, you are initiating an awful day. Further, the panic generated by this pre-programmed negativity may only last a few moments (until you persuade yourself to get out of bed, perhaps) but restoring a genuine sense of calmness may take much longer (until the meeting is over, perhaps). All day long, your breathing may remain shallow. The automatic reaction to fright, flight or fight – real or fictional - is literally stunting our breath and depriving our vital cells and organs of life-giving oxygen. Left unchecked, these stress reactions can lead to anxiety disorders and become debilitating [4]. We no longer move with ease and confidence.

Noticing a breathing pattern and switching over from automatic to focused breathing can have an immediate effect towards restoring balance after a shock, much reducing the recovery time. But it can be hard to remember to breath slowly when we’re in a panic situation. Even if we know – or have heard – that slowing down our breathing will simultaneously calm our thumping hearts, “common sense is not common action”[5]. Just because we know something is good for us, doesn’t mean that we will actually do it, as the happiness expert Shawn Achor writes.

Indeed, breaking lifelong habits can be tough to crack but of course it can be done. And when it comes to breathing, it’s easier than you may think, if you only try.

Practising controlled breathing can be done anywhere, anytime. All you have to do is count slowly to 5 while you breathe in, then breathe out to the count of 5. If you repeat this for one minute (60 seconds), you will have already enhanced the oxygen and carbon flows in your body. This is all it takes to disrupt a pattern and take control of your behaviour. Stop reading for one minute and have a mini-break of controlled breathing now. Even life-long procrastinators can do this – after all, you are breathing anyway, so why not actually take notice of what you are doing for this minute.

If you stopped to breathe mindfully, your body (and your brain) will thank you. All your cells will have had a little boost and perhaps a few neurons will have shifted to light up new connections in your brain too.

If you didn’t stop reading to breathe at this particular moment, make a date with yourself that next time you are standing in a queue or just scrolling through your social media feeds, you will switch over to a minute of controlled breathing. You can time yourself too, if you wish, just to make sure that you acknowledge how little time it takes out of your day to devote to yourself.

And more good news! You can repeat the 60-second exercise as often as you wish, or set aside a minute for yourself several times a day. Do this, for example before you get out of bed in the morning, and before you go to sleep in the evening. Try it before that meeting you didn’t want to attend or at any time as a Reset button to switch off from whatever you were doing.

Breathing keeps you alive. Now breathe to let the stress dissolve and live that life more calmly.


For a large variety of breathing exercises, join the Facebook group Swivel! out of stress.


Photo: Col du Donon, Alsace, France by Theresa Cameron 2019

Notes [1] Nestor, James (2020): Breath. The New Science of a Lost Art. Penguin Life, London; pxvii [2] ibid, p 12. [3] ibid, pp143-4 [4] For more about anxiety and stress disorders, see, for example, Harvard Medical School special report Anxiety and Stress Disorders. [5] Achor, Shawn (2010): The Happiness Advantage. Virgin Books/Random House, p146

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