Anxiety: Therapy OptionsSeptember 13, 2022
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Treatment OptionsOctober 4, 2022
Have you ever felt like your emotions run your life? That your emotions are this unpredictable and sometimes random force that determines the quality of your day or the amount of your motivation? I’m here to tell you that it does not have to be this way. I’m here to remind you that you are so much more powerful than you think. You’re right, you can’t always control what emotions you experience, but you can ALWAYS control how those emotions impact your life through the incredible power of your breath. Just like anything new that you pick up, (a guitar, juggling balls, a samurai sword), to get good at it, you must train. To harness your breath for emotional mastery, you need to practice.
Before I go further down this rabbit hole, let me back up to the basics.
Where do emotions come from?
Rule # 1: Emotions don’t come from other people. When we say “you MADE me feel sad”, you are giving away all your power. Emotions are created in your brain. The brain ‘decides’ which emotions to create in our bodies based on 2 things:
- Current bodily sensations and;
- Past experiences/associations with those sensations.
For example, imagine that you are alone, walking in the forest, far away from other people or society. You hear a rustle in the trees. Your hair then stands up on your arms and you begin to orient your vision and your hearing toward the direction of the sound. What is that noise? You see a snake in the distance.
At this moment, your brain perceives the information from your ears, your eyes, and your skin and combines it with information already stored in your brain (“I’m scared of snakes”) to create the sensation of fear. Your heartbeat increases, your breath gets fast and shallow, you feel agitated, and you get the heck out of there.
Alternatively, the brain might have different information stored about snakes (“I have a pet snake at home, as long as I don’t make it feel threatened, it will leave me alone”). You take a deep breath, notice the beauty of the sun glistening through the leaves, and continue on your way.
Do you notice how the exact same situation can produce two completely different outcomes depending on what information you have stored in your brain? In other words, your reaction to any given situation depends almost entirely on what you tell yourself about the situation.
OK. What does this have to do with breathwork?
Great Question. The snake example is an easy way to illustrate how bodily sensation plus past associations with those bodily sensations create our experience of emotion. For the most part, this entire process is automatic, all orchestrated by a part of your brain called the autonomic nervous system. It’s a myth today that the autonomic nervous system operates completely outside of our control and here is why. During this entire interaction with the snake, there were 2 parts of the experience that you have control over: your thoughts (what you tell yourself about the situation) and your breath (how your breathing pattern adjusts itself in response to your thoughts). Your thoughts and your breath are 2 of the only things in your body that are both automatic and under your control. Thoughts can happen automatically, but we can change our thoughts. Breathing happens automatically, but we can change that too.
And this brings us to why the breath is a superpower:
Because breathing pattern is influenced by the autonomic nervous system, this means that we can influence the autonomic nervous system by consciously adjusting our breathing pattern.
Since the autonomic nervous system is responsible for creating emotions in the body, this means that we can directly influence our emotional experience through conscious breath.
You are in control. You have the power use your emotions as a way to guide you through life to a place of greater purpose and fulfillment, instead of having your emotions decide your life for you. When you take control of your breath, you can take control of your thoughts. When you take control of your thoughts, your emotions become your servant and not your master.
How do I harness this superpower?
The answer is self-awareness. Strengthen your awareness of your body and you will naturally strengthen your awareness of your mind. Without judgment of good or bad, turn attention on itself: Why am I paying attention to the things I’m paying attention to?
Start by becoming more aware of what emotions you’re experiencing and how your breath responds to those emotions. When you notice anxiety, say to yourself “this is anxiety. Interesting, my breath is short and shallow”. When you notice calm, say to yourself, “this is calm. Interesting, my breath is naturally slow and deep”.
Short, shallow breaths send a powerful signal to the brain. The brain hears “they’re pumping the lungs with fresh oxygen, that must mean there’s some danger, better send more anxiety”.
Slow, deep breaths send an even more powerful signal. The brain hears “hmm, slow deep breaths, that means there is no danger that I need to respond to, you can calm down now, body”. It also reorients your attention to the present moment, instead of the potential future (eek, the snake might bite me). This is why a lot of mindfulness techniques incorporate breathwork (box breathing, diaphragm breathing. Progressive muscle relaxation etc.).
You have more power than you know. You can and should take control of your emotional processing system by “telling” your brain which signals to send to your body, all through the way that you breathe. You can do the opposite too! In case you’re driving somewhere and you’re feeling tired, you can activate your alertness mechanism by using faster, shallow breaths. If you’re curious about the extremes that dedicated breathwork can accomplish, check out Wim Hof, the iceman: https://www.wimhofmethod.com/iceman-wim-hof
Written by: Mykhaylo Petrynyak, BA Psych, MACP
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