While working with young people in East Palo Alto, California, one of the most most violent cities in America, I learned how to use measured breathing to provide a first line of support for children who had been in violent and abusive situations. An example was one young man who had been woken in the night by gunfire outside his house. He dived onto the floor and lay still while bullets tore through the walls and whistled over his head.
When terrifying things happen, our bodies switch into fight, flight, freeze mode, shutting down all unnecessary functionality, such as digestion and cell repair. This mode is enabled by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that works automatically. Breathing becomes shallow and fast, blood flows to muscles, and heart rate increases. The brain operates in a mode where it is far more reactive, with the emotional areas taking control.
When we are relaxed, our bodies switch into recovery mode, enabling functions that work more slowly, such as digestion and cell repair, which are needed to prepare the body for the rare crises. This mode is enabled by the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Breathing becomes deep and slow, blood flows to the internal organs, and heart rate decreases.
Humans are animals that have learned how to consciously regulate our actions. We override our autonomic nervous systems with beliefs and habits, and we create imaginary dangers and crises with our imagination and our ability to think about things in the future and the past. Because of this, most of us suffer from an over-activation of the sympathetic branch, resulting in tension, poor digestion, anxiety, high blood pressure, poor cell repair, and even explosive anger and panic attacks that are terrifying in themselves.
Just as you can enable your sympathetic branch by taking fast, shallow breaths, you can activate your parasympathetic branch by taking slow, deep breaths. This is measured breathing, which I show you how to do in this video. Most people, most of the time, will find that doing a few rounds of measured breathing will result in a significant reduction in anxiety, anger, and general activation, leading to a pleasant calmness.
Every time you practice measured breathing, you are creating an oasis of calm in which your body-mind can heal and grow. You will experience physical healing and also psychological healing through this practice.