Take a Deep Breath!

Today, I am sharing Sarah’s inspirational piece on breathing. Sarah Barnes is my horse trainer. I have been working under her invaluable guidance for the past couple years with her beautiful mare, Spirit. Sarah specializes on connecting humans with their equine partners. 

Take a Deep Breath!

It’s one of the most commonly offered pieces of advice.  Feeling anxious or upset?  Take a deep breath.  Feeling angry or frustrated?  Take a deep breath.  Feeling worried or fearful?  Take a deep breath.  And now here we are in a situation where breathing itself could lead to infection with a pandemic virus that has upended everything normal and familiar in our world.  Even in the best of times, the advice to “take a deep breath” can seem simplistic if not downright irritating.  Now it seems risky as well.

Am I Safe?

But it turns out, even in the current crisis, it’s still the best and easiest advice to follow.  Our nervous systems are designed to continually ask the question “Am I Safe?” – and when the answer is not an unequivocal “Yes”, we gear up to deal with the perceived threat.  What that feels like, on a physical level, is an increase in heart rate and respiration and a tensing of muscles involved in locomotion or self-defense.  Basically, our bodies are preparing to take flight or put up a fight.  If those two alternatives aren’t an option, we may go into freeze mode.  In any case, our systems get flooded with neurochemicals, such as cortisol, designed to deal with danger.  These days, just watching the news can produce this effect.  While these neurochemicals can be lifesaving in the short term, especially in a situation in which there is an immediate threat to life and limb, on a sustained basis, they can be toxic.

Pause and Reset

The good news is that we can exercise some control over how our nervous systems react to what’s going on in our environment.  One of the best and easiest ways to do this is – you guessed it – take a deep breath.  Because the lungs and diaphragm are enervated by the vagus nerve, which sends information to the brain designed to answer the question “Am I Safe?”, taking a deep breath can help alter the nervous system’s assessment of what’s happening in the environment.  Taking a deep breath is like hitting our nervous system’s pause button.  Taking several deep breaths can actually allow our nervous systems to reset.

Five In / Five Out

Research conducted by the HeartMath Institute has shown that taking a full-belly inhale to the count of five and exhaling fully to the count of five (so six complete breaths a minute) is an ideal rhythm for resetting a stressed nervous system.  Combining deep breathing with consciously holding a positive emotion (such as gratitude or appreciation) can further contribute to all the body’s systems, including heart rate, immune function and cognitive abilities, coming into a calmer, more coherent and thus healthier state.

Share the Calm

Further good news is that research has also proven that by consciously practicing coherent breathing as described above, we can have a positive influence on those around us.  In equine-facilitated therapy and learning, we practice this all the time, being aware of how our breathing affects the horse and vice versa.  How often have we felt calmer, just from being in the presence of these serene creatures, peacefully inhaling and exhaling as we share their space?  So much is communicated through the language of the breath.

So the next time you feel overwhelmed, remember to take a deep breath – several, in fact.  It will help calm yourself and those around you.  Just be careful that if you breathe in public, you wear a mask and stand at least six feet away.

Sarah Barnes is a certified EFL instructor and offers programs, workshops and individual sessions through Medicine Horse and Anam Cara Coaching.