How your mother got it wrong
Susan J. Craig, M.A., O.A.C.C.P, G.T.
Remember the last time your mother told you to “Take a deep breath!” You were frazzled or angry or frustrated and she was just trying to help. To please her you reluctantly took a deep breath. Then you held it and then let it out. Then you got irritated and told your mother “It’s no good! That doesn’t help!”
You were right of course. Holding your breath doesn’t help. In fact, holding your breath can intensify whatever is going on. So why does everyone tell you to take a deep breath when you need to relax? Because they actually have it half right.
Your gym teacher probably told you that you couldn’t control certain aspects of your body, such as your heart beat, salivation, digestive system, sleep or blood pressure, but that you needn’t worry because your autonomic nervous system took care of them. That is true. Your heart beats if you don’t think about it. You breathe on your own with no particular thought and you sure do salivate when you smell that wonderful peach pie baking in the kitchen. But your gym teacher was wrong too. You can control the autonomic system.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions; the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. To think of it simply, the parasympathetic nervous system controls your relaxation and rest functions: the sympathetic nervous system controls the alerting or stimulating functions – the ones you may have heard called fight or flight. What is the one function of the autonomic nervous system that is under both your conscious or unconscious control? Breathing. You can choose to take a deep breath or you can let your unconscious run the show.
When you choose to control your breath you also choose to make changes in all those other autonomic systems. Your mother wanted you to settle down, so she suggested a change in the breathing pattern. The problem is that the inhalation is part of the stimulating function. Inhaling and holding the breath will just increase your level of stimulation. Think about the last excited person you saw. How was he breathing? No doubt he was breathing fast and using mostly the upper part of the chest to inhale. His ribs were doing all the work of breathing. So taking a deep breath won’t work.
Think now about the last time you saw a sleeping baby. How did she breathe? Her little tummy rose and fell as she breathed and she wasn’t worried about sucking it in. She was breathing diaphragmatically. The diaphragm is a very large muscle that goes right across the rib cage separating the chest from the abdomen. When you inhale, the diaphragm goes down, drawing air in. When you exhale, the diaphragm rises and, returning to its natural position, creates a vacuum, which brings air in again. It is a bit like a piston in an engine. Somewhere in time you, and I, experienced some stress in our lives and we both inhaled – fast and shallow. The sympathetic nervous system kicked in to action and we were ready for fight or flight. Since then, we have often thought we were in danger and continued to inhale quickly and shallowly. Now, even when there is no danger, we breathe as if there was. We forgot the soothing power of diaphragmatic breathing. With that deep exhalation we naturally relax and rest.
Try this experiment: when you next exhale use your abdominal muscles to push the air out. Don’t worry about the inhalation; it will take care of itself. Just let your shoulders relax. Exhale completely every time you take a breath for the next minute. Notice how you feel.
When you can jump-start the parasympathetic nervous system through control of the exhalation, you can jump-start the relaxation response. Remember to exhale.
Your mother was headed in the right direction when she told you to take a deep breath. She just focused on the wrong half of the breath. Mum had it half right.