I am not a betting person unless I know for certain that I am going to win. But if you tell a friend that you are anxious, I’d be willing to bet her response would go something like this:
- “Take a deep breath. Calm down.”
- Or “Relax. Breathe deeply.”
- Or “Slow and steady breaths girl. You’ve got this.”
There’s a reason that our pleas for help with anxiety are often met with a direction to breathe. It’s because it works.
Okay. Why does it work? Stay with me here…I’m about to go all nerd on you.
A Quick Anatomy Lesson on Breathing
Near the base of your brain lives a little something called the respiratory center. It has two jobs: to collect information and to make decisions based on that information.
What kind of information does the respiratory center collect? Among other things, it’s taking meticulous notes on:
- Chemical information, like oxygen and carbon dioxide levels
- Pressure information, like how much space you have left in the lungs or your stomach
- Voluntary action information, like whether you want to whisper, sing, or yell
- Movement information, like whether you are running a marathon or watching Netflix
- And….emotional information, like whether or not your are anxious or fearful (this is why I can always sense that anxiety is on the way simply from the quality of my breath. Shallow breath = my trigger for anxiety.)
Based on the information it receives, the respiratory center decides how you should breathe: smooth and even, shallow and quick, forceful and deep? It then delivers instructions via nerves along the spine to the muscles that control breathing, namely the diaphragm and the intercostals.
Those muscles then contract so you can take an inhale. When your diaphragm contracts it drops towards your belly and creates more space for your lungs. More space in the lungs means more volume, but less pressure, so as your lung pressure decreases, outside air rushes in. (Spoiler alert: this is important.) Your alveoli expand, taking in all the yummy oxygen. That oxygen crosses over from the alveoli to the blood vessels next door and then your blood stream delivers oxygen to all your cells. You probably already know this, but cells need oxygen to do stuff. Without oxygen, we would die.
When your respiratory muscles relax, you start to exhale. Trash that your cells made (that would be carbon dioxide) crosses from your blood vessels back over to the alveoli in your lungs. Your lung volume decreases as your alveoli tissues retract. But you still have all that trash in there so your lung pressure increases and all the things that you don’t need anymore get pushed back into the atmosphere.
Quite simply…we breathe in: we get what we need. We breathe out: we let go of what we don’t need.
Still with me? I know that’s a lot of anatomy!
This is why I teach yoga (or at least, I did. I’m on a bit of sabbatical from it now, because #VEDS). At the heart of it, yoga is about creating space in the body to receive more oxygen. And more oxygen is good.
So why does this matter for anxiety?
When we engage in controlled breathing, it stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system. Here are a few things that happen when our parasympathetic nervous system is happy:
- our heart rate slows down
- our blood pressure decreases
- we get more blood to our digestive organs, which encourages digestion, which is why when you are relaxed your stomach starts to gurgle
- our adrenal activity decreases, so our body produces less cortisol, which means we are less stressed
- our muscle tension decreases, which means that crick in your neck releases
Basically, when the breath is easy, the body will be too. You are more calm, more relaxed, and most importantly for us reading this series, less anxious.
So how does this relate to the Bible?
Here’s the one thing I learned in my yoga teacher training that forever changed the way I viewed the breath:
It’s important to note that in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you do not actually pull air into the body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by the atmospheric pressure (14.7 pounds per square inch) that always surrounds you.
–Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff & Amy Matthews
Remember when I explained earlier that as your lung pressure decreases, the outside air rushes in? Well, it doesn’t just rush in. It’s pushed in. As in, not by us. This means that although we have a small measure of control over how we breathe, the bulk of the action comes from an outside force. If we believe what the Bible tells us about the breath (and I do), then God is literally always with us, whether we recognize it or not. It is His breath that fills us and sustains us. We cannot run from it, nor do we have to work for it. We simply have to receive it. God fills us with His love with every breath we take.
There are a lot of Biblical implications that we could explore here, but because this series is about reducing anxiety and because I’m afraid it might make you anxious to have to read 4,000 words while I continue to geek out on the Bible and the breath, I’ll sum it all up for now with this:
The real power behind the breath is that God is in control.
Usually, that knowledge is enough to settle my anxiety right away. But what if it’s not? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in this series.
Tomorrow I’ll share a few Bible verses that prove that the air we breathe is from God. But today I promised you my favorite breathing technique for when I feel anxious.
How To 3-Part Belly Breathe
- Find a comfortable position, either laying down, sitting, or standing up.
- Take a few breaths in and out, without trying to force the breath in any way.
- Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your chest.
- As you begin the inhale, send the breath all the way into the belly so that the hand on your belly rises.
- As you continue the inhale, send the breath into the lungs so you can feel the ribs expand underneath the hand on your chest.
- As you finish the inhale, you’ll take the last tiny sip of breath into the throat, filling your entire torso with as much oxygen as you can.
- When you begin to exhale, you’ll send the breath out the same way it came in: starting at the base of the throat.
- Then feel the ribs draw toward your center as the breath leaves the lungs.
- Feel the hand on the belly fall as you send the last amount of breath out.
- Repeat this cycle a few times, as often as you need throughout the day.
It’s good to note that even though this breathing technique is called “3-Part Breath”, it’s really shouldn’t be done in separate parts. Rather, each breath it should be one cyclical process, a continuous rise and fall with each inhalation and exhalation.
Try this a few times today and notice how it makes you feel. And if you feel better, let me know!
Until tomorrow, warriors! Carry on!