Breathing and Mental Health

Author: Marcelo Lopes, Psychologist

Part I

Inspiring is the first thing we do when we are born. Exhaling is the last thing we do before we leave.

Breathing is involved in everything we do and in every function of our bodies, and yet it’s amazing how many of us don’t know how to breathe properly.

Breathing is one of our main sources of energy. Interestingly, the origin of the word “breath” has a meaning equivalent to that of “vital energy” or “spirit of life” in different cultures. For example, in Sanskrit the word is “prana”, in Chinese it is “qi” (read “chi”), in Greek it is “pneuma”, in Hebrew it is “ruach” and in Latin it is “spiritus”. Because our language derives from Latin, the word mother is “spiritus” and, therefore, “inspire” means to bring vital energy or life force into us.

For followers of yoga, the key word is “prana”, from which the discipline “pranayama” derives, whose meaning and practice consist of the expansion of vital energy through breathing techniques. Over the last few decades, Western science has been exhaustively studying these techniques to confirm everything that ancient wisdom has been trying to convey over so many years. A knowledge that now revives and comes to help us with a task that we carry out all the time, but with so little awareness.

yoga position

To carry out this vital task, we are equipped with a pair of lungs that extend from the collarbones to the last ribs. If we fully use our lung capacity, we appear healthy and radiant with energy. We are, literally, more alive. The issue is that, nowadays, we are not using this resource to its fullest. In fact, some argue that we only use half of our respiratory capacity and, if we analyze it, many of us only breathe into the upper part of the chest, or take shallow breaths. As a result, our energy levels drop and, to compensate, we start eating more and relying on stimulants, which only throws the system out of balance even further. Stress is the main culprit, as is nothing new – although it is increasingly difficult to notice that we are under stress. The complexity of more urban lifestyles brings a very subtle and hidden level of stress, whose presence is constant. Without realizing it, we are breathing shallowly and at a very fast pace.

Speaking of rhythm, we breathe on average 10 to 20 times per minute, a little more if we are more active, like when we exercise, and these are the numbers we consider normal. However, science has recently demonstrated that the nervous system is more balanced when we breathe around 5 or 6 times per minute. This proves that we already assume breathing that is quite accelerated as “normal”. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti, “it is not a sign of health to be well adapted to a profoundly sick society.”

Breathing and Nervous System

It’s legitimate to blame stress, but only because we experience it too much. Stress, like anxiety, are healthy responses of the nervous system that allow us to adapt to challenging or dangerous situations. It is normal that, in the face of a threat, the heart speeds up, the breathing rate increases. and temperature increase, and muscles become tense. This is the half of our nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, which moves all our internal resources, manages priorities, and prepares us to act – full of adrenaline and with warm and activated muscles, we are much more prepared for action . That’s why they called this response “fight-or-flight”. Managing these priorities also implies less emphasis on functions “secondary” to survival, whereby the sympathetic nervous system inhibits digestion, sexuality, regeneration and, in the long term, immunity.

The term “long term” is key. We have been training ourselves very well to stay in this mode for long periods of time. It’s easy to see why: we always want to be prepared, think and act quickly, respond to the endless demands that constantly arise. However, what is natural is to return to a state of tranquility and rest after responding to a challenging or threatening situation. Here, it is the parasympathetic nervous system that comes into play, the half that is responsible for relaxing, digesting and regenerating – which is why they recently started calling their response “rest-and-digest”. For this to happen, it is necessary to feel that the challenge is over, to let the body know that it can finally rest – this is the problem.

The parasympathetic nervous system perceives what is happening in the body through a special nerve called the vagus nerve. Extending from the center of the brain to the abdominal area, this nerve collects information through its contact with the intestine, lungs and heart directly to the brain. And while the signals coming from these organs indicate stress, the vagus nerve does not give the signal to relax. We remain ready to fight or flee, and not to relax and digest, remaining tense, with slow or inefficient digestion, and with low immunity. Hours, days or weeks can pass and, on autopilot, the answer to stop does not emerge. It is therefore necessary to become aware of and take control over this function.

“Enganar” a Mente

When we are happy, it is natural to smile. We smile to express the happiness we feel inside. But even if we’re not, if we try to fake a smile, we might end up feeling a little better. This is actually the brain being “tricked” by a neuronal process, because the neurons that process emotions are associated with the neurons that control the muscles of the face. As neuropsychologist Donal Webb said, “neurons that fire together, wire together”.

Our brains can’t always determine the order of emotional events or distinguish between imagination and reality. This is why we can also become anxious about things that haven’t happened yet, just by thinking about them. When a neural network is activated, our inner chemistry changes – forge a smile to generate more serotonin, the happiness hormone, or ruminate a little to raise cortisol (not recommended).

It’s no different with breathing. When we are calm, safe and happy, we breathe slowly and deeply, filling a large part of our lungs and giving it time to absorb oxygen. If we are under stress or in danger, we tend to take short, shallow and irregular breaths in order to obtain oxygen quickly. Thus, we could assume that we breathe according to what we feel, and this is true, although the opposite is also true. If we breathe fully, our emotions will tend to calm down. We begin to feel in tune with the way we breathe. Breathing is the only vital function that can be consciously controlled – if we forget about it, our body takes over, but we can take over. Autopilot has its uses, as we talked about in the previous article, but awareness has very broad applications. Why don’t we stop every now and then and, with curiosity, listen to our breathing? Its rhythm, its depth, the sensation associated with it. And try gradually slowing down this pace, encouraging a sense of fullness.

Breathing in this register may not feel natural… and that’s why we need practice and continuity. Over time, we make more relaxed states of consciousness and self-regeneration accessible. In a mysterious way, the vagus nerve can be activated through deep, slow, voluntary breathing. When active, it interacts with the parasympathetic nervous system, leading the entire body to relax, and this is how we trick our mind into relaxing–even if the challenge remains present. And, for those who like to live in constant challenges, or undertake very demanding projects, knowing how to make breathing a conscious process is fundamental.

Share this article with anyone who could benefit from this information.

We will soon share Part II.

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