Two key powerful behavioral tools to combat depression, anxiety, or any emotional difficulty, are deep breathing and intentional relaxation. Neuroscientists are discovering more every day about why this is true even as these have been practiced by various meditative traditions in various forms for millennia.
The basic understanding we now have is— through consciously directing our lung activity, we alter the tone of the nerves between our torso and brain, particularly our emotional brain, and this change in both respiration and relaxation level alters our emotional state relative to the present moment. We thereby foster a deeper sense of control and empowerment with each deep breath in and each intentional release out. By training ourselves to move away from flight/fight/freeze states and toward our comfort zone with deep breathing and intentional relaxation, we develop an always-available tool for better emotional navigation of any of life's stressors.
For many people struggling with their emotions, breathing is often very shallow, using only 10-20% of full lung capacity. Combine this with the fight/flight response's tendency to send blood to the extremities and away from the brain, and we can literally be struggling with hypoxia (low oxygen levels) all day long. To help us, about once a minute, the body automatically sighs, or takes a deeper breath, and even then we may only use 30-40% of our lung capacity. With this shallow breathing pattern, we can constantly be missing the opportunity to improve our sense of emotional resilience right here in this moment.
Unfortunately, so many have this pattern because we were trained by various life experiences to hold our torso closed and tight, with clenched tummies and rigid chest, neck, or facial muscles. Or, we have gone to the other postural extreme: a protruding belly, hunched shoulders and chest, jutting chin, and slack facial muscles. Both anxious and depressive posture types impede deep, healthy breathing and intentional self-control of emotional activation levels.
Fortunately, because our most basic built-in skills are breathing and self-soothing, it rarely takes long to re-learn and apply these skills to enjoy the benefits. We can train ourselves to take full 100% lung capacity deep breaths and systematically relax to experience the centered, calm aliveness that can permeate our entire body, including our brain and thoughts.
Click here for a gentle, slow, 25-minute guided deep breathing and intentional relaxation audio that you can download now for free and play whenever you would like to develop these skills for yourself. May you enjoy the calm strength that comes from practicing deep breathing and intentional relaxation!