We have two ways of functioning as human beings. Automatic, unconsciousness ways where everything seems to happen without our having anything to do with it, and aware, conscious ways where we become active. It’s not that one of these ways is good and one is bad, but I think we’re missing out if we aren’t active enough.
The A to Z of Becoming verb series here is about considering the ways in which we can become active and exploring what that then feels like to us. This week let’s explore breathing.
Breathing is an automatic function for us. We don’t have to stop and choose to breathe in or breathe out. But when we turn our active attention to our breathing, watching to see the rhythm of our in breaths and our out breaths, we find that the pattern changes. Even without trying to alter it, just paying attention to it alters it. Try that for yourself and see.
Breathing can also, to a certain extent, be an active choice for us. We can choose to hold our breath and dive under the water to see what lies on the sea bed. We can choose the speed and depth of our breathing and in a way impose our active choice onto our default automatic function.
When we become actively engaged with our breathing at least two things happen. One is that whilst we are carrying out that activity (be it an activity of awareness, just noticing our breath, or be it a chosen pattern of speed and depth of breaths) then we are altered for the duration of that activity. Changing our pattern of breath alters our heart rate for example. It alters the chemical balance in our blood and in our cells as we change how much carbon dioxide we breathe out and how much oxygen we breathe in. It changes our brain cell activity and rhythm. It can alter our mood, our thoughts, our feelings. But, secondly, repeated sessions of active breathing change the underlying default patterns.
Let me put my doctor hat on again for a minute, and tell you about one scenario which I encountered a lot as a doctor and where I showed patients how this phenomenon of active breathing could change an underlying chronic problem.
Many people chronically over-breathe. It’s called hyperventilation. The pattern is of fairly shallow, fairly fast breaths. When this pattern occurs during sleep, the person wakes up feeling not so great……maybe headachey, tired, vaguely unwell, maybe with tingly or numb hands or fingers, or with crampy, achey limbs. You don’t know that your body is in the hyperventilation pattern overnight, but a clue it might be can be found in noticing the breathing pattern from time to time during the day. Most times when you look, you see your breathing is fairly shallow and fairly fast.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating as they say, or in this case, in the breathing. If you get someone to take a few minutes to do some diaphragmatic breaths (click through here to read the detail if you need it). And get them to do this three or four times a day. What will happen is that the underlying unconsciousness pattern will become disrupted and that disruption continues right through the night whilst the person is asleep.
I thought it was an odd thing when I first read about the sleep studies which showed this phenomenon, but time and again I found it made a big difference for many patients. Making an active choice to breathe differently a few times each day, alters the default, automatic pattern right through the 24 hour period.
Active breathing. You certainly don’t need to be doing it all the time, but taking a few moments, or minutes to do it a few times each day sort of resets your whole system.