I have a ridiculously sensitive startle reflex that has made me the butt of jokes for many years. Every coworker, family member, and friend has at some point accidentally startled me. I even joke with new coworkers that they haven’t finished their orientation until they’ve made me jump. It’s just one of my quirks.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is every time I’m startled, I reflexively take a short, sharp, shallow breath. It is often accompanied with a little gasping sound, and inevitably I find myself holding that breath until I get my wits about me and figure out why I’ve been startled (while the other person giggles and apologizes). That’s when I exhale.
Our breath has more to do with regulating our emotions than most of us give it credit for. After all, we breathe all the time, right? We even breathe in our sleep. Why would we ever need to think about breathing?
Take a big, deep breath, then hold it as long as you can. Notice your pulse, the color of your cheeks, your heartbeat as you count the seconds before you exhale. If your body works the same way mine does, you probably noticed your pulse quicken, your cheeks become flushed and pink, and your heartbeat increase. What changes in the moments following the exhale? Eventually your body returns to its normal, calm state.
The changes you noticed in your body as you held your breath are very similar to some of the changes the body experiences when we feel anxious. In a state of heightened anxiety, our blood pressure rises, we become aware of our pulse, and we might feel warm and flushed. Now try taking a few very slow, deep breaths. Notice how your mind and body feel after consciously breathing this way. What we’ve learned is that the inhale tends to be stimulating whereas the exhale relaxes us.
The breath is a companion that stays with us every moment of our lives. We tend to ignore it until it becomes a problem, but with a little mindfulness we can also see it as a friend that guides us through times of distress. Many people enjoy a step-by-step guided breath practice, but I find that often it’s not necessary or we can’t access it when we need it the most. Instead, it can be as simple as a single thought: “How does my breath feel right now?”
Consider asking yourself one of these questions:
Am I holding my breath?
Does my chest or belly feel tight?
Do I feel like I’m having a hard time catching my breath?
If the answer to any of them is yes, take a moment to let out a deep sighing exhale. Take in another breath, and slowly sigh again on the next exhale. Repeat this as long as necessary. This practice can take the edge off of anxiety, calm crying, and help clear the mind. “Breathe through it” is one of my favorite ways to guide clients through intense emotion.
Check back for an in-depth guided breathing exercise to be published here in the coming weeks.