Words: Stuart Sandeman
How are you breathing right now?
Don’t change it in any way. Just observe and think about it for a minute.
Are you breathing through your nose? Are you taking shallow breaths?
Does your chest expand more than your belly?
Is there any tension in your body as you breathe?
These may seem like trivial questions, but the answers can tell you a lot. How much energy do you have? How much stress you’re under? What is your overall emotional state? They even hold the key to healing trauma. And that’s just your breathing over the last sixty seconds. Good breathing will change your world. Breathe In, Breathe Out. Let’s get started with Stuart.
BREATHING, THINKING AND FEELING
Studying the ANS in this way reveals the most fundamental principle of breathwork: that not only does the way you breathe affect the way you think and feel, but also that the way you think and feel affects the way you breathe. It’s a feedback loop. I’ll walk you through it. Thinking happens in the mind. Feelings happen in the body triggered by your breath. Your thoughts and feelings change the way you breathe, and your breathing changes the way you feel, which changes the way you think. When both your thinking and your feelings match, it creates your state of being. So if you’re thinking anxious thoughts and feeling anxious, you’re in the sympathetic mode. Your heart is racing, you’re taking short, shallow anxious breaths, and your state is ‘I’m anxious’.* In most cases you can break this ‘state of being’ loop in one of two ways. You can either think differently, accepting or replacing the anxious thoughts with more positive ones, which can be difficult when you’re anxious. Or you can breathe differently to change how you feel in your body, so it no longer matches your thoughts and your state of being loop is broken. Your brain says, ‘Hold on, I’m not anxious. My heart isn’t racing, my breathing is relaxed.’ This state of being loop applies to any state, positive or negative. For example, breathing calmly will create a feeling of calm, and calm thoughts will follow. Throughout this book we will work on both thinking and feeling differently. Because here’s the thing: if you’re stuck in a loop, you’re stuck in a state of being. You may even start to identify with that state of being as part of your personality. This is because a state of being that lasts a week becomes a mood. A mood that lasts for months becomes a temperament. A temperament that lasts for years becomes a personality trait.1 This means that some personality traits can be traced all the way back to the way you’ve been breathing. In other words, a part of your character that feels permanent and deeply personal could have begun with just a single breath.
Emotions, as we all know, are complex things. Some, like grief, can be made up of a number of ‘simpler’ emotions, such as sadness, anger and frustration. Others can persist over time and transform into different emotions, such unexpressed anger becoming resentment. Emotions simply don’t fit neatly into boxes. But the important thing to note is that the kinds of emotions you’re likely to experience on a daily basis – simple emotions such as fear, stress, happiness or anger – can be addressed and processed, and this will give you more resilience, emotional intelligence and control in your daily life. The word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin emotere, which means ‘energy in motion’. When you feel an emotion, you’re simply recognising certain energies moving through your body, a felt charge based on what you’re experiencing. Emotions may cause you to scream and shout after receiving good news, collapse on the floor sobbing when you can’t find your house keys or to withdraw completely after an argument. Emotions are felt responses to situations and play a key part in your daily life. You probably notice yourself experiencing a wide range of emotions, and this is because your brain and body are constantly communicating to keep the chemistry in your body balanced. It’s an example of homeostasis, by which living organisms try to maintain relative stability despite changing circumstances. Every emotion comes with a different breathing pattern and flow. When there’s a change to your body’s chemistry, such as when you feel an emotion, your body attempts to regain balance by releasing that emotion – what we call emotional processing. When you laugh, cry or shout, the body is trying to release and let you process energy. Breathing is an important part of this; it’s the mechanism that helps facilitate the release of emotion.
EVERY EMOTION COMES WITH A DIFFERENT BREATHING PATTERNS AND FLOW
Try this. Mimic the action of laughing right now. Can you feel your breathing rhythm change? Your out-breath jitters as you expel stale air from your lungs. Laughing expands the tiny air sacs in the lungs, and creates more 146 | Understand Your Emotions Understand Your Emotions | 147 room for fresh oxygen to enter. OK, now let’s try to mimic crying. How is your breathing flowing now? Is it more restricted, short and shallow? OK, one more: I want you to mimic rage. What happens to your breathing? What happens in your body? Can you feel it tense up and your muscles contract? Positive emotions are felt as an expansion of the body and breath, and negative emotions as a contraction. Sometimes we also consciously restrict our breath as a means of controlling an emotional outburst, positive or negative – like that time you had to hold your breath to stop yourself laughing at your school teacher, or when you held your breath to keep the tears from flowing in front of colleagues at work. Emotions, both positive and negative, lead to behavioural responses, where you either express – your breathing and emotion flow; you laugh, you cry, you shout – or you repress/suppress, which often correlates with your breathing being restricted and your emotions becoming ‘trapped’ – they remain in the body, unexpressed and therefore unresolved. When your emotions are out of balance, or you do not allow yourself to express them, it causes problems. You might have an emotional outburst and slam some doors, you might say something you regret or you might try to squash the feeling completely by avoidance, substance use or distraction. But sweeping emotions under the rug does not help, and has been shown to cause stress, anxiety, sleep issues, depression, addictions and, over time, even disease. This is why it’s super important to express yourself (in a safe and appropriate way) and allow emotional processing to happen as it’s supposed to. We often call this processing integration. After much experience in my practice, I’d say that most bad breathing habits and the corresponding archetypes they form stem from breath holding patterns, when people try to sweep their emotions under the rug. It’s important not to avoid your emotions but to understand them and get better at feeling them, and to free your breathing from trapping them. When you’re in tune with your emotions, you make better decisions and have more control over your actions. Your breath flows freely, and you feel healthier and happier.