When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system, or our fight/flight mode is activated and our bodies produce hormones that enable us to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. This is a valuable thing when we’re actually in danger but it becomes a problem when we find ourselves in prolonged periods of stress.
And, with all the stress of life today, especially if we’re sensitive, we’re in that state all the time, which can eventually lead to anxiety, depression, trauma or burnout. As empaths, we need to be intentional with our energy because we absorb everything and then amplify it, sending that energy back out into the world.
These same stress chemicals suppress our other bodily functions that don’t deal with staying alive in a moment of danger, such as digestion, immunity, our ability to heal (physically or emotionally) and connect to our intuition, amongst other things.
As someone who understands the world through metaphors, I find this one helpful to explain the nervous system. Imagine a wild cat up a tree, swiping its paw at everything because it thinks it’s threatened. This is like the nervous system in fight/flight mode which may manifest as stress or anxiety. Now imagine the cat lying at the bottom of the tree, calm and relaxed, with its tail gently flicking in the sun. This is like the nervous system in its rest/digest state.
Interestingly, humans are the only mammals that don’t have a self-regulating nervous system, so we have to consciously create space for rest and relaxation.
And that’s exactly what we’re going to do to reset through the power of the breath and mantra in today’s meditation.
We’re practising belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, which is a great breath for beginners because it also teaches you how to breathe properly. We’ll also explore the ‘longer exhale’.
In times of stress or anxiety, our breath tends to be shallow and quick. We breathe from the top of the chest, rather than the lower lungs. That’s because the nervous system convinces our body that we’re in danger, switching on the fight/fight mechanism. Our adrenal glands also produce a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which boosts our blood pressure and puts us on a state of alert.
But when we breathe deeply, we can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of peace in our mind, body and soul. This long, slow, smooth breath switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in our body.
If you’ve ever caught yourself sighing at the end of a long day, this is an example of your body’s natural way of relieving stress and anxiety.
This full belly breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve, “vagus” being Latin for “wandering”, which extends from your brain to your belly and passes through your diaphragm. Nourishing this nerve with your breath slows down your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and acts as a catalyst for calm in your body and mind.
Find a comfortable seat if you can and place both hands on your lower belly.
Close your eyes and begin to breathe in deeply, filling up with air. Breathe out completely, to reset.
As you continue to breathe here, notice where that breath lives in your body. Is it a full expansive breath? Or is it just sitting there in the top of the chest? You don’t have to change anything at all, just simply notice.
Now send your next inhale down into your belly and feel your hands rise as your belly inflates. Exhale and feel your belly soften as you empty all the air out. Breathe in, expanding. Breathe out, softening. Inhale and exhale through your nose, or release the air through your mouth if it creates more of a release. One more together here, take a big inhale and easy exhale. Now begin to count the length of your inhale and as you exhale, extend the length of your breath by a couple of counts. You might breathe in for 4 and breathe out for 6. This ‘longer exhale’ helps you shift into that parasympathetic state. Continue on your own for a few more breaths like this. You can also visualise the diaphragm, that thin layer of muscle at the top of the abdominals, moving down as you expand the capacity in your lungs and as you exhale, the diaphragm releases, contracting and squeezing all the air (and any stress) out of your lungs. Really breathe to the bottom of the exhale. Expanding and contracting. Allowing everything else to be soft. Just focusing on your breath. And now silently say to yourself: The way back to peace is through my breath. You’re stimulating the vagus nerve as the diaphragm moves up and down, turning on that relaxation response. Let’s just take one more inhale together and exhale let it all go. Drop your hands, release your breath and open your eyes to the room.
Whenever you need a reminder this week, silently whisper your mantra:
The way back to peace is through my breath.