Wellness: Colorado, Just Breathe

August 2 2012, 9:30 AM

Breathe. It's a one-word command that implores us to perform our most necessary and, usually, unconscious function. This summer, it's become an all-too-frequent command in the wake of what can only be described as a chain of ongoing tragedy that's taken our collective breath away: The police officer shooting in City Park; the demonic wildfires that raged through much of the state, ravaging hundreds of homes, nearly 350 in just the Colorado Springs area; hikers and bikers missing and killed; and an Aurora massacre that stunned the world. We're told to breathe in the midst of sobbing, breathe in the silence of shock, and even breathe when there's a moment of hope.

There's a biological reason for this. Stress causes us to hold our breath or take shallower, shorter breaths primarily from our chest. This shallow breathing sends a signal to our autonomic nervous system (ANS) to flip on its sympathetic system (responsible for fight or flight response), which in turn, boosts stress, anxiety, and muscle tension to survival-mode levels. All of which, if sustained over long periods, can elevate the risk of heart attacks, depression, and weight gain.

When you do breathe, it should be from your belly, like you do when you're relaxed. Your stomach should rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale. It turns on the parsasympathetic branch of the ANS, which calms everything down and lowers anxiety and stress.

Researchers have spent time with people in postwar Kosovo, Gaza, and Israel; tsunami and Sudanese genocide survivors; American veterans; and 9/11 Ground Zero first responders to find out how yoga breathing (a longer, slower, and more controlled form of oxygen intake) and other mind-body disciplines like meditation could help those who have dealt with the most severe forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and everyday stress. In each case, these sorts of breathing techniques relieved psychological distress, decreased sadness, and improved well-being. One study found that slow breathing at five to six breaths per minute can help us reach a balance of stress and calm even during the worst of times.

After losing my father to Lou Gehrig's disease, my mom relied on Ambien to help her through the nights. When she realized it wasn't the smartest of crutches, she reluctantly took up meditation. She would sit quietly in our basement for an hour each night and focus on her breathing. It seemed silly at first—until it brought her the first truly restful night of sleep in five years.

The next time you find yourself needing to breathe, really think about how to accomplish that:

1. Find somewhere quiet—it could be your couch, your bedroom, a favorite spot on the trail—and get comfortable. Sit. Lay down. Whatever works best for you.

2. Breathe in slowly for five counts and out for five. Make sure your stomach is rising with each inhale and falling with each exhale.

3. Continue for at least 20 minutes, if you can. Longer if you'd like. And do it at least once a day.

4. Keep breathing until the world—or at least your world—makes sense again.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock