Mental Health Awareness Month | Week 1 Blog by Dr. Sabina Mauro

We enter this world taking our first breath and leave this world taking our final breath. And in between, without exception, our breath nourishes our mind and body every moment of every day, often without us even thinking about it. This is literally the breath of life.

Our breath is a powerful instrument to our well-being. It gives a clues to how our body is functioning and how our mind is operating. Our breath can be a measure of stress like rapid breathing in moments of high stress or slow breathing in moments of low stress, a source of relief like a sigh after a difficult moment passes, a key to inner peace, like mindful breathing while we focus on it.  Our breath is the anchor to the present moment.

Through an involuntary mechanism in our brainstem, almost imperceptibly, our breathing constantly changes. For simplicity, there are two type of breathing patterns:

  • Slow breathing: this type of breathing is active during a relaxed state. Breathing is slow and calm, and breaths are deeper and longer.
  • Fast breathing: This type of breathing is active during stress. Breathing is fast and shallow, with the chest moving rapidly up and down.

When we are not relaxed we are stressed and our breathing activates our sympathetic nervous system, which is a vital self-defense mechanism. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system is very stressful on our body. Physiological changes take place at the very least includes fast breathing. Since the stress response system is involuntary, you cannot control when it activates. In a life-threating situation, the sympathetic nervous system is critical for survival and in modern day society, our brain can easily misinterpret non-life-threating stimuli and initiate this system. However, by being aware of your breath you can reset your breathing pattern and  re-activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring yourself back into homeostasis, a state of relaxation.

No matter where we are in our life, whether that is in a stressful situation, a bad memory from the past, or worry about the future, a focus on breathing can teach us to observe ourselves in the present moment to help us develop awareness of our thoughts, emotions, stressors, and events outside of our control.

It is easy not to think about our breathing and tune out of our physical presence. Our stress can go unnoticed, our pain level can increase, our emotion can become uncomfortable, and our mind can drift.  When we can bring our attention back to our breathing, we can  reconnect with our mind and body. Breathing can be our anchor to the present moment allowing us to understand how our thoughts and can have a physical influence on our being.

Our breath provides us an opportunity to strengthen the mind-body connection. When we intentionally focus our attention on our breath, we can better assess our emotional state, notice the wandering mind, and decrease our current stress level. Our breath is an indicator to what is happening inside our mind and body. When we deliberately pay attention to our breath, we are able to control of our nervous system directly which is connected to the mind and body.   

When we focus and bring intention to our breathing our breath is no longer just helping us survive, it is pulling us out of difficult moments, resetting our nervous system, and giving us an opportunity to create new neuropathways in the brain. Most have heard or even said to themselves “take a deep breath.” Lets all as we read this take a deep breath it and as we let it out, let all the stressful buildup through the day leave with our breath. (Feel free to repeat). Voluntarily focusing on our breath with an intention gives us an opportunity to cultivate change and enhance our well-being almost instantaneously. Our breath is the one true thing that is present in every moment and we can choose to pay attention and even self-direct our breath.  When we bring this attention to our breathing this is referred to as mindful breathing. Stay tuned to learn about the benefits of practicing mindful breathing!

For the week, just notice your breathing. You can set a reminder to take a deep breath at least once a day.

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