So, last night I went to bed in intense pain, almost unable to breathe. I couldn’t move, without searing pain shooting through my muscles, so I got in bed early and tried this new “somatic” approach I found by accident while looking for an image to use for one of my posts. The image said “Fine tuning the nervous system will have your body respond in a different and more positive manner”, and it struck a chord with me.
I checked out the site, and I discovered this different way of moving and relaxing and releasing which was unlike anything else I’ve found. It’s not about pushing and pulling and making the body do things it “doesn’t want” to do. It’s about retraining the body to do what it “wants” to do, but has forgotten how, over all the years of use and misuse.
It’s about making a movement gently and slowly, then un-making that same movement much, much more sloooowwwwllllyyyyy… and then relaxing, so the brain can release the chemicals the body needs to release. Pretty amazing, actually. It sounds good, but logically (based on my past experience), it doesn’t seem likely.
Still, I tried it. What else could I do? Just lie there in excruciating pain, struggling for breath?
Well, whatever it is that makes this approach work, it worked wonders for me, last night. I really did feel amazing — the pain was actually gone. And I could breathe. I could really breathe — deeply and slowly without struggling.
Pretty phenomenal, actually. And when I really paid attention, I could tell that I was using extra muscles to move different parts of my body. When I arched my back, for instance, I could feel my legs pushing — which is totally unnecessary. But I guess because my back has hurt for so long, I just got used to pushing with my legs.
So, I stopped that and backed off on the effort, and it actually became easier for me to move.
And it’s good. A vast improvement. I did sleep wrong on my arm and I woke up with pins and needles and swollen hand, but that happens. I got up and worked it out, and now it’s gone. So, that’s good too.
The idea of being able to move without excruciating pain is, to put it lightly, very exciting to me. It’s like getting a whole new lease on life. Just being able to breathe last night and relax… pretty phenomenal. I’ve never been very good at relaxing — always too tense, always too wound up. Until several years ago, I couldn’t see the point in relaxing — probably because I didn’t yet know how to do it in a way that really released the tension and pain. Whenever I relaxed, the pain would become overwhelming. So, my solution was to just keep going, just keep pressure on, and not give myself enough time to stop and check on how I was feeling.
That works… to some extent. But the real change comes from actually knowing how to relax and breathe and also release the tension. It’s all come together relatively slowly for me, after years and years of pain. I guess I’d gotten to a point where I figured it was permanent. But now it seems that it might not be… And that’s pretty exciting.
What could I do with more energy? More flexibility? More movement? I know it would definitely take the pressure off… and also simplify my life. When I’m in pain and I’m stressed, I do things like adding way too much crap to my plate that I think “must” be done. It doesn’t have to be done. I just think it does, because my brain is looking for more stimulation to keep its attention off my discomfort. I’ve been doing it for years, so it’s habitual.
Because I hadn’t found a better way.
Here’s hoping this new way continues to work. I have a feeling it just might.
Okay, now that I have opened up the Pandora’s box on this chronic pain and have started paying attention to my muscles when they move, I’m realizing that one of the reasons I don’t always breathe evenly, is because it hurts to breathe.
The simple act of filling my lungs causes my shoulders to lift, which hurts.
It ties into my neck, which also starts to hurt.
And my ribs expand, which also is painful.
Oh, well. I’ve been pretty active, physically, which has something to do with it. I’ve really been pushing myself, lately, lifting heavy weights and doing movements I haven’t done in a long time. I feel much better when I lift heavy weights. I find it very soothing.
At the same time, thought, I tend to be physically active a lot – especially in the winter, when I try to get out and get active as much as possible. I actually do better in the winter, since I can warm up — while in summer I can’t always cool down.
So, I’ve been pushing my body, exercising muscles a lot, and all the extra lactic acid along with the micro-tears in my muscle tissue… well, it’s adding up to a whole lot of pain. Especially when I breathe.
So, I need to really work on that. It’s hard to relax, when I’m not breathing regularly, but my body instinctively tenses up and avoids the pain that comes with deep breathing.
You see my quandary.
Oh, screw it. I’m going to eat some dinner, have some more Advil, take a long hot shower, and crash. I’m pretty wiped out, so I should be able to sleep reasonably well. And when I sleep, I’ll be breathing regularly, so my body will be able to settle back into a rhythm.
What I want to write about right now, is how what I call “the breath of life” can help overcome TBI.
Now, I understand that a lot of people think of “the breath of life” in religious terms, and maybe I do, too. But I don’t align it with any particular religion, rather the really meaningful aspects of the everyday — and they in themselves could be considered “holy”… but that’s another discussion for another day, I suppose.
What I mean when I say “the breath of life” is breathing intentionally, as though your life depends on it (which it does). It’s about breathing consciously and steadily, with a focus on the full breath — in and out — in a way that calms you down and stabilizes your whole system.
Everybody who’s alive breathes. Yet many of us don’t realize what an important part steady, regular breathing plays in our lives. It’s common, I understand, for people to hyperventilate — to breathe faster than their body actually needs them to. Or to breath more shallowly (is that a word?) than they could. On the other hand, a lot of people take deep, deep breaths, thinking that will calm them down… when in fact inhalation actually revs you up and stimulates your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system.
What does this have to do with overcoming TBI? A whole lot. Because TBI is traumatic, from the beginning, and on through the years. The initial injury is just the start of ongoing trauma you’ll experience on a daily basis. After TBI you’re often unable to do the things you used to do, and you go through a serious personal crisis… and that’s traumatic.
And you often have to really push yourself to get things done the way you like… and that gets your sympathetic nervous system all fired up, and that can ultimately lead to diminished cognitive capacity, in and of itself, which then compounds the trauma of TBI difficulties.
And after TBI, you can often find yourself totally screwing up things that “should” be easy for you, that used to come easy to you, and that everybody else thinks should be easy for you. Screwing up, time and time again, is traumatic — especially if the mistakes take you by surprise, and you have to work double-time to make right what went wrong.
So, the trauma that takes place isn’t just with the injury. It’s with your whole life, after the injury. Maybe things clear up and get better, maybe they don’t. But they’re different from how they were before. YOU’RE different from how you were before.
So, what that means is your autonomic nervous system — the wiring and chemistry that regulates your digestion, your sex drive, sleep, your immune system… all those systems that you don’t consciously control in your body — gets stuck on permanent ON status. And if you can’t manage to disengage the sympathetic fight-flight in favor of the parasympathetic rest-digest, you can eventually find your body breaking down in hidden ways. You can get colds and flu more often. Your digestion can get screwed up. You can lose your sex drive. You have trouble sleeping, or you sleep too much. And more. It’s like you’re running your car’s engine on 15,000 rpm, day in and day out, and you never change your oil.
We know what happens to cars when that happens. Imagine what’s happening to your own nervous system.
So, this is where the breathing comes in — the breath of life.
It’s basically sitting quietly, either cross-legged on a cushion or sitting up in a chair, or even lying down, if you can’t sit comfortably, and breathing slow and steady from the belly. Just focus on the breathing, as though your life depends on it, without thinking about a lot of other things. I find that when I sit still for a while, my mind automatically starts taking advantage of the downtime to think about a lot of stuff. It can’t be helped, but I can get my attention back to my breathing just by reminding myself that I’m not fixing things right now, I’m just sitting and breathing.This can — and will — balance out the autonomic nervous system, strengthening the parasympathetic, which is so critical for making up for the wild activity of the sympathetic. You can’t have one work optimally without the other, so strengthening the parasympathetic strengthens the sympathetic, so when I DO have to go into fight-flight mode, I am stronger and have more stamina, which is helpful.
The other thing this helps with is attention. I’ve got serious attention issues, and I get really distractable when I’m tired. The breath of life helps in several ways — it helps me balance out the ANS so I rest and sleep better, and consequently the fatigue doesn’t eat into my attention as much. And focusing on my breathing and the sense of just sitting also trains my attention to stay on one thing longer. So it prepares me for when I’m not sitting anymore. This is two kinds of practice in one — for body and for mind.
This really works for me (and it’s a variation on what has worked for lots of people in meditation and zen for many generations). It’s literally helping me get my life back – so it is the breath of life for me. Yesterday my neuropsych was remarking at the huge difference this breathing practice has made in my quality of life and outlook and attitudes, since the New Year, and it’s totally true. It may work for others (and I suspect it will), but everybody’s different, so you may find it doesn’t work for you. But it would be good if you tried it.
Give it a whirl — you may find it can help you overcome TBI (or other problems, too).
Well, I’m tired. Really, really tired. But the project got launched yesterday, and with it another big deadline moves into my rear-view mirror. And now the way looks clear ahead.
We still have a few things to clean up, but the lion’s share of the work is done. And I can move on.
In spite of the stress and fatigue and the pain I’ve been having lately, I feel great. I feel like I’m all in one piece, like my life is finally together. And even the leftover pieces that are a little out of whack, don’t crush me like they often do. I am in pretty tough straits, financially. I barely have enough money to make ends meet, and I don’t live extravagantly. I am having trouble getting my projects done at work. And my commute is about to double (and with it, my travel costs). I haven’t been sleeping well, and I’ve been having more and more pain. I’m also gaining weight, which doesn’t feel healthy. But at the same time, I’m really feeling good. All these situations, I can see, are temporary. And they don’t define who I am or what I’m worth. I have this underlying foundation of … well, wholeness, that gives me strength to go on.
Some of my friends who are very religious will tell me it’s God working my life. That could be. I don’t count that possibility out. Others of my friends who are more secular would say I’m “in the zone”. And that applies as well. Others would say I’ve reached a highly desirable state of equanimity. I say, I just feel really good. Solid. Like I’ve finally gotten myself on an even keel.
I think a key to this new development has been a regular routine, and also practicing my breathing. I’m actively developing a routine I can follow each day — I’ve followed a morning routine for some time, now, which has helped me to start my days much better. And now I feel even more strongly that a routine is useful for me. It helps me get my mind off the little details of everyday stuff, that I can just do rote, and it leaves me time to rest my brain and also think about things that are more interesting than what order to eat my breakfast in.
I’ve also been taking time to sit and do my coherent breathing in the mornings and again at night. I don’t always succeed at clearing my mind of distractions, but some days I do really well. I’m sure that there are people out there who have lots of input and ideas about what happens to our minds, hearts, and spirits, when we sit silently and breathe. I am very interested in what happens to the body — as the starting point for so much of what happens in my mind, heart, and spirit.
I’ve noticed that when I sit a certain way — as has been suggested — holding my back straight, with my chin a little lowered (reaching the top of my head towards the sky), with my hands resting comfortably in front of me, I get this really cool tingling sensation in my face and arms and hands. A friend of mine who had a stroke several years ago gets very spooked by any sensation of tingling in their hands or body. It means — to them — that they’re in trouble. But for me, it means that my spine is in alignment and my brain and spine are communicating more freely with the rest of my body, which can’t be bad, right?
I also find that when I am sitting, I often lean forward a little bit. I can’t even tell that I”m doing that, unless I pay close attention to my posture. All of a sudden, I’ll notice that I’m leaning forward, and I’ll have to consciously get myself to sit up straight.
I’ve also noticed that if I pay attention to the tingling sensations, I can tell when I’m out of alignment. So, I can sit up straighter and get back in alignment. That gives me something to focus on, that gets my mind off the coming day — or the day just now behind me.
I don’t sit for a long-long time. Just about 10 minutes. Sometimes longer, sometimes less. But the important thing is, I sit. And breathe. And it gets me off to a good start.
I think I really need to do better about keeping my mind quiet, while I’m doing this. Today was pretty difficult. I think all the excitement of the all-day launch yesterday had an effect. And I’m tired, too. When I’m tired, it’s hard for me to focus — even on the breath. I think that’s the neurologically induced constant restlessness I’ve been told about — my brain is fatigued, so it just keeps racing and racing and racing. I do think that I can do something about this and learn to calm down my brain activity so I can not be so out of whack. I just need to keep that mission in mind, when I sit down.
Mission… yes. It’s a mission, for sure. To chill and learn to master the craziness that can run me, at times. Starting small, with working with my breath and the behavior of my mind, is a start.
The nice thing is, by the time all is said and done, even if I haven’t been that good at keeping focused and chill during my sitting and breathing time, I still get up feeling great. What an awesome way to start the day. And even if there’s nothing else that I gain from this practice, that alone is enough.
I’m amazed. Really. Truly. How can this be? I’ve been in the thick of some pretty intense times, lately. Work is crazy, home life is challenging in the extreme. I’ve got some serious hurdles to cross, and I don’t have a lot of time to do it. And in the back of my mind is the worry that I’m going to melt down under the pressure — just snap — and lose it. It’s happened before, and I’m always afraid it’s going to happen again.
Times like these are prime candidates for me to lose it in a very big way. And yet, through the past days, I haven’t. I’ve been hassled and stressed and worried and fully aware of how close to the edge I am. Bills have to be paid — but with what? Each pay cycle, I am short for the last couple of days. And people I’ve never been late paying, are now having to wait. Not good.
And yet, through it all, I’ve been able to keep it together. It makes no logical sense, based on my past experience. I’ve been very present, and very involved — and on an emotional roller-coaster, to be sure. But through it all, I’ve had this incredible sense of level-ness — equanimity. Calm. I’ve been nervous, anxious, upset, scared… all of that, yes. But each emotion that’s come up, has been able to pass without turning into a federal case.
Granted, things could change, and it could all go to hell in a handbag. But for the past week, when things have been just so terrible, I’ve kept it together.
How? Why? I really think that taking the time almost every day to stop and breathe — sit and breathe — count my breaths for 10-15 minutes — has had a serious and significant impact. Truly, I think this is the thing that’s different. Everything else I am doing pretty much the same as always. Everything else is business as usual. But the one thing I’ve changed is my breath — consciously breathing at the beginning of my days, and also sometimes at night before I go to sleep. I can’t say it’s helping me sleep, per se, because I’ve been waking up too early. But I can say that when I’m awake, it seems to be really chilling me out and helping me think clearly.
It’s helping me balance my autonomic nervous system — the nervous system that responds to the outside world and pretty much runs itself. It’s not like I’m controlling it — yeah, good luck with that. I’m just “toning it up” with some conscious breathing exercises.
I am also giving my brain a rest. When I am sitting and doing my breathing, I focus only on my breath (or, at least, I try to). I count… 1… 2… 3… 4… and so on, till I get to 46. Then I’m done and I can get on with my day. After I am done with my sitting/breathing, I feel so much more chilled out, it’s crazy. And I feel like I can deal with stuff. Like making the bed when I get out of it, and putting my shoes where I won’t trip over them. Just those little things, that are usually such an annoyance, are not that big of a deal. And they make a small but significant difference in my life. Walking into a bedroom that has a tidy bed and doesn’t have obstacles for me to trip over, is good.
Throughout my day, too, I find that my practice in the morning helps me later on. Practicing breathing, and recognizing how good it makes me feel when I am doing it, gets me in the habit of just doing it while I’m going about my everyday life. It’s not like I need to feel amazing all the time – that’s not realistic, I think – but it is helpful to have something to fall back on when I’m feeling really BAD, to help balance things out. It’s not that I want to have peak experiences all the time (well, maybe I do), but I would like to find a way to “fill in the divots” in my emotional life — where I feel like someone has swung a club and taken a big chunk out of me (whether they realize it or not). Something that will just chill me out and calm down my extremes, would be good.
So, enter the breath. The thing that helps me regulate my heart rate, that helps me give my brain a rest, that helps me take a little mini-vacation in the course of my day. Just five minutes — five minutes – makes a huge difference to me. Hell, even just five breaths makes a difference.
I think, in addition to the physical / neurological benefits, the other thing that helps me is feeling like I have more control over my reactions. When I am focusing on my breathing and I am concentrating on counting my breaths, I’m practicing a skill I need to learn — managing my reactions to things that are going on around me. When I am sitting still, and thoughts come up, and I let them go, it strengthens that skill that I need in my everyday life. I seriously need to be able to let things go, not get caught up in them, and not get my head spinning about stupid sh*t. I need to just BE. I need to just let myself be. When I am sitting and breathing, I am doing just that — practicing for all those times when people say or do things that seem like they’re intended to hurt or harm me, when I get caught up in my perseveration and paranoid thinking that I’m in danger — so therefore, I have to react with equivalent or greater force.
The sad thing is, many times, others actually don’t mean the things I think they do, and if I think about it, I realize that I am not nearly important enough for them to build their lives around hurting me. They have their own hurts, their own concerns, their own troubles. They can’t be bothered with mine. And chances are pretty good that they might just seem like they are out to get me — but they’re thinking of something completely different that has nothing to do with me.
So, my sense of danger, and my hair-trigger reactions not only send me off into the stratosphere with anger and rage, but many times they are completely unnecessary and unjustified. Getting a handle on my reactions is an important skill to acquire.
So, I’m acquiring it. Through sitting and breathing. It’s funny — years ago, I used to do this, and I think it helped me with the TBI I had in 1996 (motor vehicle accident — front-end and rear-end collisions — a collision sandwich with me in the middle). I think it really helped me get a handle on my reactions and improved my overall performance at work. After my fall in 2004, though, I quit all of that. I mean ALL of it. I “decided” I didn’t need to do it. What I “needed” to do was blow up at people, go off on ranting rages, and threaten everyone around me for no reason that they could see (but that I felt and perceived very clearly, in my addled mind).
Now I’m back again. And I’m more aware than ever that I need to do this, to be functional, and to have a decent life. I can’t go on the way I was in the past, with my anger and rage and hair-trigger reactions getting the best (or worst) of me all the time. That’s no way to live — especially when there is so much going on around me that requires my full attention and full participation. People around me are depending on me. So, I need to get my head in order and start living up to my potential in this regard.
The good news is, to do this, I don’t need a prescription or a referral from my doctor. I don’t need insurance, and I don’t need someone to sign off on it for me. I’m not dependent on the system for this, and I don’t have to pay. It’s free. I can do it anytime. And all it costs me is commitment and discipline to make it happen. But with the benefits I’ve been getting and the way I feel, working up the commitment and discipline is pretty easy.
It’s just so good for me. And for everyone around me. It’s just amazing what a little breath can do.
It’s no secret that I’ve had issues sleeping for quite some time. After my fall in 2004, I was waking up at 3 a.m. each night, unable to get back to sleep. I don’t recall that I had trouble getting to sleep, but staying that way was a huge problem. And along with it came a host of other issues that compounded my cognitive and behavior issues… to the extreme.
As a quick sidebar, I have been thinking more and more, lately, that the physical problems that come with TBI/concussion can in some cases be even more of a problem than the one in our heads. If anything, they often form the basis for problems in our heads. But I digress… more on that later.
Anyway, I’ve been getting back to the breath, taking time before I start my day to take 46 conscious breaths before I get on with my day… and then at the end of the day do some conscious breathing before I get ready for bed. It really is remarkable what it accomplishes. I have also been reading up on Stephen Elliott’s work on Coherent Breating, and I was skimming through his list of newsletters to see if anything grabbed my attention. I got a new computer a while back, and now I’m better able to open PDFs without my whole system slowing down to a halt.
I came across the picture of this newsletter — The Restorative Power Of Shavasana — and I thought I’d check it out. The picture looked so restful, and it grabbed my attention straightaway. Then I read it — it’s short, just a couple of pages — and I learned that the yoga pose Shavasana (I think it’s pronounced shah-VAH-suh-nah), when done properly for 15 minutes, can yield the same results as 2-3 hours of sleep.
Hm. That caught my attention — especially since I’ve been getting about 6-1/2 hours of sleep a night, and I really need 8… but I’ve been unable to do anything about it. I can’t take sleeping pills, as they totally screw me up. And even when I do everything “right”, my system wakes me up. It probably has to do, also, with how much I have to do each day, and how much I want to do each day — it’s a little tough to stay asleep, when you are overtaken with the desire to really get everything you can out of life 😉 Seriously.
So, I read some more on it, I learned that you have to not just lie there, not just sleep, but really focus on your breath, and do it consciously — in a coherent way. You can’t just lie there and do progressive relaxation (that will put me to sleep, anyway), and you’re not supposed to go to sleep. It’s important that you’re completely awake and aware the whole time. When done properly, apparently, you can recharge your batteries and get the same benefits as you’d get from 2-3 hours of sleep.
I have been working with this a bit, myself, and I have to say that I feel so much more awake and able to get up, if I do this before I get out of bed. I’m not yet adept at keeping my breath at the recommended 5 full breaths per minute (12 seconds per breath in a steady rhythm that balances your heart rate and your autonomic nervous system), but I sure as heck can lie there, with my back straight and my head aligned with my spine, and slow my breathing and focus on it for 10-15 minutes.
I have tried this in the past, with some success, and I think I figured out something important — don’t lie with a pillow under my head. I think in the past, I had limited results because I was using a pillow, which put my skull out of alignment with the rest of my body. I discovered in the past few days that when I take the pillow out from under my head, I get a whole other feeling of connectedness and energy. It just chills everything right out, and even if I don’t get more than 6-1/2 hours of sleep, I find I’m not as concerned and stressed about it when I get up. I have this other way to get some energy, and it is GREAT.
I can also do this at work, although I need to find a place to lie down. Oh heck, even if I can’t, I think I’ll just try it in an out of the way place, sitting up straight, with my back and neck aligned in a straight line, doing this breathing. Even if I don’t get the full benefit of being horizontal (and taking the pressure off my whole system), sitting up straight will keep my back in alignment and make it easier for my brain to talk to the rest of my body.
Good stuff. And I can do it at the time when I need it most — before I start my day, when I need the energy and the tone for my day is set.
Speaking of my day, time to get going… More later…
Back from my walk out in the woods. Getting towards sundown… birds settling in for the night, tiny creatures singing out of sight, and the breeze on my face, cooling me after my brisk hike into the woods.
I am struck by the amazing beauty of it all, the simple power of something as basic as new life emerging from the earth, once again. Green, new, hopeful life without a reason to be cynical or self-destructive.
And I am struck by the impact that conscious breathing has had with me. Spending just a few moments breathing steadily, slowly, focusing my attention on a single point — a pine cone, a fallen branch, water in a little stream flowing over glistening rocks…
In all my years of hiking these woods — although I’ve been away from them for the past 3-4 years, as my last fall made it very difficult for me to be outside and in wide open, uncontrolled spaces — I have rarely (if ever) had the kind of presence in that place I had this evening. I usually returned to my home somewhat tense and shut-down. I would start out wide open and ready for a good walk. But when I got home, I would be a far sight less relaxed than I expected/wanted to be.
For years, I knew something was amiss with me, when I would go out on my walks. I would walk for about 15-20 minutes and everything would be fine. Then I would start to shut down, would start to ruminate about this, that, or another thing. I’d get stuck in my head and wouldn’t actually see very much on my walks, even though I’d cover miles of ground in beautiful, healthy woods.
I always knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now, I think it’s because I would get tense, being out in the woods, I would start to feel uptight about something, and I wouldn’t breathe properly. The lack of deep, measured breath would give rise to more tension and add to my agitation, and then I’d ruminate even more… A self-fulfilling cycle that I could never seem to break.
Somehow, I’d always get trapped in my head. And my walks would turn into traveling psychodramas.
But today, I took my time, made a point of stopping to breathe, periodically. And I just let it all in. Whereas before, I would start to wall myself off and shut down, today, I let myself stay open to what came across my path. No social anxiety, when I happened across a landscaper loading a backhoe onto his trailer. No drama when cars would pass me closer than I liked. No shutting off and getting stuck in my head the whole time.
Today was different.
Because I breathed. On purpose. Measured, mindful, enjoyable breaths. Good breaths. With awareness and purpose.
UPDATE: This post is by far the most popular one on this site, and it has helped a lot of people. (See the comments below to read what they’ve said.) So, I created a whole new site, called How I Slow My Heart Rate where I give more details on the technique. Visit the site
Someone mentioned recently how their heart just races at times — “off the charts” is how they put it. Many, many years ago, I actually learned how to slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute to a regular pace. Back in high school, when I was working out for track, after a particularly hard workout, my heart would feel like it was beating out of my chest. It was pretty disconcerting. I actually felt ill when it was happening. So I had to do something.
Here’s what I did:
First, I tried just slowing down my breathing, but my heart would still race, and my body would feel like it was starving for air. So, I’d have to start breathing heavier again, and my heart rate would stay fast.
Then I tried taking in a deep breath and holding it… but for some reason, that just made it beat even harder. Yikes! I think that is because inhalation is linked with the sympathetic nervous system, which is all about adrenaline and fight-flight-freeze responses. Taking a deep breath seemed to activate the very thing I was trying to calm down.
Then I tried exhaling completely, and holding my breath for a count of 3-5, or as long as I could hold it…. then slowly inhaling, and then exhaling and holding it for as long as I could count.
Somehow the exhalation is what worked for me. It may be because exhaling is linked with the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t say exactly for sure why this works, but I’ve come across other people talking about it — like the folks at Coherence and the new science of breath (the pic below is theirs, and if you’re into the science, I recommend you check ’em out).
But all the mysterious science aside, based on my experience, focusing on exhalation is what helps me slow down my heart rate. I actually have a little bit of a heart murmur (no big deal, according to my doctor), so that makes managing my heart rate even more important to me.
To recap, here’s what I do:
Hold the breath and count to 3 or 5 or as long as I can go…
Then slowly inhale and then exhale again… and
Repeat the process.
If I keep doing that, I can slow my heart rate from pounding a mile a minute, to a regular thump-thump-thump. I have slowed it from over 100 bpm to around 70. Sometimes I’ve done it in the space of a few minutes. It’s pretty cool when that happens. It feels a little strange and unexpected, and feeling like I’m suffocating is no fun, but it’s reassuring when the technique works.
I can’t guarantee this will work for everyone, and please don’t take chances with your health and safety if you have cardiac/respiratory issues, but I did want to share that. It just might help.
I have been consciously working with my breath for about a week, now, and I have to say, the changes I’m noticing are remarkable. These are changes for the better. Changes to patterns and aspects of my life that have been entrenched for a pretty long time. In fact, the patterns and aspects of my life that I feel shifting are ones that I had actually been resigned to having to deal with, for the rest of my born days.
I had thought that I would just always have to deal with things like constant agitation, anxiety, fear, and avoiding the things that freak me out. I had thought that I would just have to get used to restlessness running my life, a perpetual undercurrent of manic-ness flowing in the background of my life, 24 hours a day. I had thought that relaxation was something that other people could do, but not me. I had even thought that conscious breathing was not something I’d ever be able to practice fully.
Turns out, I may have been wrong. All the stuff that I’ve been battling against, for as long as I can remember — especially the behavioral things, and the hidden, underground state of anxiety, despair, and agitation that stokes them — may not be as unmoveable as I had thought. And a very important piece of this puzzle, perhaps the one missing number in the combination that would unlock this mystery that is my life, has turned out to be mindful breath.
In just the past week of doing just a few minutes of conscious breathing a day — and I’m not joking about the “just a few minutes” because I am at this point unable to focus exclusively on my breath for more than about 3-5 minutes — this amazing change has taken place. I’m actually relaxed. Loosened up. Not nearly as rigid as I had been. I’m so relaxed, in fact, that it’s taking some doing, for me to get moving in my current daily work. And looking closely at that pattern and examining why that is, I am realizing more and more each day that it’s not because there’s something wrong with (only) me — I’m just not in a good job. The position is not a good match for me. And I need to change that.
So, I’m revising my resume and I’m reaching out to talk to recruiters. And you know what? The whole way I’m doing that, is changing, too. I have been more present, more confident, more secure in my dealings with recruiters, than I’ve ever been in my life — and I’ve been dealing with headhunters for over 20 years. I’m actually clear and relaxed and centered, and I’m not on constant guard all the time.
This is amazing. Nothing short of phenomenal. During one of my job interview discussions last week, when I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, I didn’t just sail on past it and assume I would figure it out later. I actually stopped the conversation, made sure I understood what they were asking/saying, and then I responded to the actual question they asked. In the past, I would have just rushed it and fudged it. And I would have ended up either looking a little “off” or getting into a job that I had no business getting into. I’ve done that more times than I can count, but this time I didn’t do that. I actually held my own, and I participated fully in the conversation.
That, because I was calm and centered and focused. I was consciously working with my breath.
Which amazes me, because for years, I’ve been confounded by people who tell me “Just breathe…” in response to traumatic situations. It’s so friggin’ annoying, being told to “Just breathe” when all hell is breaking loose. Seriously. It seems like such a slap in the face, such an over-simplistic, dense, “dumbed down” (if you’ll pardon the expression) response to what can be complex and mind-boggling situations in life.
I mean, honestly… I’m in extreme existential crisis, and you expect me to “just breathe”?! Come on – gimme a break.
But taking a closer look at it, thinking about what mindfulness can do for the physical system*, and thinking about the breath in terms of what it does for the parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”) (I wrote an extended post about the importance of the PNS here), I had to reconsider my attitudes towards conscious breathing, and give it a try.
And it’s paying off. In a very big way. Whether it’s the stimulation of the vagus nerve by the expansion of my lungs against the inside of my chest cavity, or it’s bringing my full attention to the act of breathing and blocking out everything else, or it’s the delivery of more oxygen (prana, according to some of my friends) to my physical system — including my brain… it’s working. I could tell something was different, almost from the start. Literally. Within a few days of doing a “piddly” little bit of conscious breathing, I was noticeably more relaxed in my mind and spirit and body, and people around me could tell there was something different.
On Friday night, a long-time friend of mine told me it was good to see me “back” to my old self again. “You’ve been so serious for such a long time,” they said. And others around us agreed.
Yes, it’s good to be back.
And all over the breath. The missing piece of my recovery process. Something I do, every single minute of every single day. It sounds almost too simple to my complexity-hungry mind. But maybe it is.
Anyway, I’m not bothering to doubt the importance of this. These changes are very similar in nature the improvements I’m experiencing as a result of regular (daily) exercise. But they’re happening a whole lot more quickly. I’m quite certain that several things have helped with this — they’ve laid the foundation:
I see a chiropractor regularly, and they have been really helping me get my central nervous system in shape.
I exercise each morning 99.99% of the time without fail.
I am intent on changing my life for the better and I am determined to overcome the obstacles that get in my way.
I eat the right things and stay away from lots of junk food, including drugs and alcohol and cigarettes.
I have help from a great neuropsych.
I have the support of people who love and care about me, who want the best for me.
There are more factors, of course, but these are really the foundations for my own improvement, and my own experience of the breath. I suspect that if I didn’t have these, I might not have the kind of success I’m experiencing. But the fact is, I do have them, and I am experiencing a radical shift for the better in my life, as a result of conscious, intentional breath.