We’re moving into a time of year when our culture is in conflict with the rhythms of nature and our mind/body suffers for it. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, the earth is telling us that it’s a time of restoration and retreat. Look around you, at the natural world receding into the silent night while the outer world gears up for weeks of loud, bright and hectic movement and consumption.
Needless to say, it’s a time when we can feel out of control. But there is something we can do for ourselves, something oh-so-simple.
“Well obviously I’m breathing…or I wouldn’t be reading this,” you say, perhaps while you’re sitting in Starbuck’s downing an afternoon latte between errands to the sounds of piped in holiday tunes–perhaps even before December 1. Maybe you’re also thinking about what you need to buy and who is coming into town and planning menus and how you’re going to pay for upcoming gifts and travel and how to engage in a genuine experience of this festive time. Whew!
Yes, though here’s something you probably already know but have forgotten in this moment, because there’s already too much to think about. When you’re under stress, your body goes into high alert, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your organs go into super drive and your endocrine system starts shooting out hormones that shut down normal respiratory, digestive and cardiovascular function because it’s getting the clear message from your brain that this is an EMERGENCY.
This is a good thing in the short term, like if we were being pursued by a predator and literally had to run for our lives. Once the danger passed, normal functioning would return. But our miraculous bodies have not yet adapted to our modern-day stresses, which prolong these physiological changes over long periods ( the holidays, etc.) and become chronic. This profoundly affects our daily bodily and brain functioning, our health, happiness, relationships and overall quality of life. In the weeks to come many people will experience intense anxiety, stress and fatigue. So what do we do?
Deep breathing sends the signal to the brain to switch off the body’s stress reactions, thus interrupting the cycle of anxiety affecting the brain/body and vice versa. This is not “new age “ or “works only if you believe it.” It is straight-up physiological science. Know that even if the stressful circumstances don’t change quickly, you have the means to feel better mentally and physically in a matter of minutes.
Here’s a simple, quick exercise to help your body/mind move towards balance at any time. You can do it anywhere (except while driving, as it could cause slight dizziness) and it takes less than a minute. Perhaps it’s a simple beginning for healing, to recognize that at least in this one way we are all the same, because everyone needs to…
1) Sit up in a chair or with legs crossed on the floor, notice your breath. Is it coming from your upper chest?
2) Place one hand on your belly and inhale deeply down into your lungs so that the belly moves out
3) Pause your breath to the count of 5
4) Exhale slowly through your mouth so that your hand moves moves inward with your belly
5) Repeat 5 times
6) Relax and pay attention to how you feel
7) Go on about your day, remembering to notice your breath. When you find yourself feeling stressed or breathing from the chest, repeat steps above.