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It’s something we all do automatically – and unconsciously – from time to time. Usually when one of our buttons are being pressed or our emotions threaten to overwhelm us, both positively and less so (!). Often a couple of deep breaths – or counting to 10 – are all that’s needed. A potential downward spiral is averted and everyone concerned lives to fight another day. Well, hopefully, not fight but you know what we mean… 
 
So why are deep breaths so powerful and often save the day? 
 
 
Well, to start with, by focussing on our breathing we take our attention away from whatever it is that’s threatening to overwhelm us. It instantly shuts down the Little Monster in our heads, with his running commentary on whatever’s going on at that particular moment, and puts us back in control. Hurrah! 
 
At the same time, it acts as a pattern interrupt. In other words, from responding to whatever it is in an automatic and unconscious way. A knee jerk reaction. Rather than being driven by what happened in the past – and automatically reacting in exactly the same way – we get a chance to look at things with fresh eyes. To make a much more conscious evaluation and conscious decision of how we want to react on this occasion. In other words, it helps stop us from rushing blindly in. 
 
However, there’s also something much more powerful going on at the same time. A few deep breaths literally changes our body chemistry. Moves us over from an emergency “fight or flight” response to our natural calm and grounded state. And, despite the emphasis on being “busy, busy, busy” these days; this is NOT our natural state. “Fight or flight” as the name suggests, is only meant to be a “once in a while” emergency state, not our ongoing one. 
 
These two opposing states are controlled by two different parts of the Nervous System. The Sympathetic Nervous System initiates and controls the “fight or flight” response, rather like a system override. By contrast, the Parasympathetic Nervous System keeps us in a calm and balanced state, our natural state. And, yes, we know these names are completely counter intuitive and confusing (!). 
 
Which is where focussing on our breathing comes in. So, just stop reading this blog for a moment and notice how you’re breathing. 
 
Is it nice deep and slow breaths? 
 
Or, shallow – as in using only the top of your Lungs – and quicker? 
 
Sadly, the vast majority of people – certainly in the Western World – come into the second category; which is a very quick and simple indicator of both current and ongoing stress levels. And, don’t forget that ongoing stress quickly becomes “the norm”, so we simply don’t notice it anymore… 
 
Unfortunately, stress is cumulative and ends up being the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Each time a new stress comes up – whether very short term or an ongoing one – it puts additional strain on our system with all too predictable long term results… 
 
The good news is that you can start to breathe more consciously and deliberately to help turn the tide in the opposite direction. And all it needs is to start noticing how you’re feeling as you go about your day. What situations and people are “pressing your buttons” in some way. 
 
Then, as soon as you start to feel your buttons being pressed, just make a conscious decision to STOP. Take a nice deep breath in and then out. Count to two – or three – as you breathe in, to make an even slower, deeper breath. And then again as you breathe out. Keep up these lovely long breaths until you feel calmer, it only takes a minute – or two at most. 
 
For some reason we’ve never been able to fathom, just seven or nine deep breaths is usually all it takes to put your Parasympathetic Nervous System back in charge. And doesn’t that feel better? Your head is nice and calm. You’ve shut down the Little Monster and, even better, they’ll remain quiet for a while. You’re back in control of your life. 
 
This is why deep controlled breathing and meditation are at the centre of all spiritual systems. And, despite their “peace and panpipes” image, they both make a huge difference to how we feel and, more importantly, cope with what goes on in our lives. As well as around us in the world at large. Which, with all the ongoing madness of the last year or so, should be a very good reason for making them part of our daily lives. If you want a quick reminder about why mediation is so much more than “peace and panpipes” click here
 
As always, the choice is yours. 
 
 
 
Picture by unknown author 
 
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