Today we are going to explore the breath. Like magic, the rhythm of our breath impacts our vital organs and body systems. From our brain, to our arms and legs, our fingers and toes. It’s thought that the breath may carry our spirit, like wind rushing over an expansive prairie. Amazingly, we control our breath. We control the life force and the spirit when we settle our mind. Today, we’ll talk about breath and how it can be a versatile ally to us. Whether through meditation, weight lifting, cardio, or deep cleansing breaths, our breath can help us either push forward or slow down. It’s a powerhouse, and controlling it should be in everyone’s personal growth toolkit.
Don't Let "Fight or Flight" Take You Down
I have a strong fight-or-flight response. Yes, I’m blessed with the enviable position of being easily triggered when stressed to activate a series of bodily changes that may include fast, shallow breathing, sweating, nausea, weakness of my arms and legs and feeling faint. In olden times I would be that woman who faints when overcome by sadness. You know the one who carries a flowery napkin and keels over when news comes in a heavy sealed envelope. I think I’ve been watching too many Pride & Prejudice movies. Have you noticed how many versions of Pride and Prejudice there are? There are even zombie versions.
Or perhaps I’m more closely connected to early man than others, but the fight or flight is an activation system that helped our ancestors respond quickly to stress (say when a beast was chasing them). It goes haywire in me when I am faced with any number of stressors. Things like giving speeches, asserting myself in situations where I don’t feel heard, or multi-tasking around things that carry a heavy emotional weight. In fact, the only time I activate the good fight or fight mechanism is when I’m exercising. Rowing is my exercise of choice because when I do it, all my muscles feel activated in the right way. I’ll get to exercise’s role in this later.
Fight or flight disrupts our internal balance and is activated when we are stressed by external factors. Danger, chaotic situations, emotionally overwhelming situations—these are the things that usually trigger fight or flight. Any stress including economic, social, or physical can trigger it, and lately, most of us have plenty of those. When not dealt with, this excess stress can cause pain and discomfort, and impact our health.
On one especially stressful day, I took a few moments to draft this poem, Every Breath Deeper than the Last. I drafted it in a hospital waiting room while taking care of my mom. Months later when I began to revise it, I realized how desperately I was trying to connect with my breath. I wanted the thumping, hard beating in my chest to quiet down and be replaced by my normal rather slow rhythm. But my thoughts were racing (when will the doctor tell us about this last stroke, are they discharging her soon because she hates it here, can I take care of her myself at home).
With all that mental angst and chatter, it was no wonder that my heart was racing. I’d literally have to turn off my mind completely to find some peace in that moment. It didn’t happen then, but I did have the sense to take out my journal and write. Write it out so that I could focus at least some small amount of attention on my creativity, on words that I like, and on the mechanics of putting pen strokes on paper. The heart-pounding did stop for a while while I wrote, and I filed that experience in my mind for a later day. I thought: “Let’s remember that creative actions can help quiet the mind and engage it in joyful activities during times of stress. Let’s remember that it’s important to gain some control over the breath to quiet the mind a bit.” These ideas would become the genesis of the major themes in my podcast.
Every Breath Deeper than the Last
by Jill Hodge
Every breath deeper than the last
Everything I touch, there goes a broken glass
Everywhere I look, a sea of people moving fast
Every breath I take, harder than the last
Alternate universe, a blind spot spans east to west
Swallowed by quicksand at devil’s bequest
It’s time to get out of my head
I have arms, legs, a heart, a soul, all well-fed
My breath is strong, my words well said
Drenched thick, golden honey spread
And testing times I fight against
Sweat on the brow, muscles piqued and tensed
To get into my body and out of my head
I do one thing, and only one
I take one breath, a new moment’s begun
Slow the pace, forget first place, scratch the race
Punt the ball, take my time to harken grace
I can do that. I can
Stop running, here to there, everywhere that feels like nowhere
Tread lightly, breathe slow the crisp night air
For every breath deeper than the last
To temp down these stress responses, we have to be mindful of our breath, and we can use various tools to help us do that. I don’t see these as a cure-all, but they can bring some stillness to our breathing. Mindful breathing can give us an action to take to quiet down the fight or flight response and put a little space between this uncomfortable, stressful place and where we want to be.
The first tool is meditative or mindful breathing. You knew I would start with meditative breathing, didn’t you? The reason I am starting here is because it works, and you don't have to do it every day to get the benefits. I don’t engage in mindful breathing (or breathwork as it’s sometimes called) every day. Not even close. And I don’t want to add another thing to your to-do list unless it gives you a few moments of peace to yourself. I think the benefits of mindful breathing are worth it.
I’m what you would call a fumbling beginner when it comes to putting meditation of any kind into daily practice. I’m proud of my beginner statuspromised because at least I’m trying, and I’m not beating myself up when I don’t meditate. Some weeks I meditate a few times and other weeks, I don’t. I made a promise to myself when I started meditating that I wouldn’t use it to beat myself up. I won't become regimented with my meditation because that defeats the purpose of trying to find a calm mind and body. And I don’t want that for you either. You probably have too much on your plate as it is, so perhaps you can start by using mindful breathing when your fight or flight kicks in. I would try it a few times before then so you know what you are aiming for and you’ll have an easier time moving the mind and body back to a peaceful state (because you can recognize and enjoy how that feels).
I also use my daily walks to get in some meditative moments. I slow down and calm my breath to anchor my thoughts so they don’t try to run away from me. The premise behind mindful breathing is that you can’t be anxious and relaxed at the same time, and I’ve found that to be true. With mindful breathing, you consciously direct your attention to your breath for the purpose of changing your body and mind.
To get started with mindful breathing, I've found an article by Mindful Communications, a public benefit corporation. Their website at mindful.org has a large collection of articles and resources to help us cultivate mindfulness with the goal of improving our lives and being more compassionate as we move through society and impact others. They offer a 6-minute breathing meditation with a breathing GIF like the one below. This may work for some of you, but if you find your breathing getting out of whack with this external cue, just don’t use it. I tend to like to follow my own breathing pattern because I’ve developed a sort of rhythm that feels good.
If you don’t have any experience with diaphragmatic breathing, using a GIF pacer might be helpful. Breathing from the diaphragm increases the amount of oxygen to your brain and activates a complementary body system (the parasympathetic nervous system). This system returns your body to a calm, restful place, counterbalancing the fight or flight response. Here's another resource on mindful breathing that includes exercises, scripts, and videos (including ones for kids). It offers a ton of resources as you explore this tool.
The next tool is exercise. I think of exercise as a mental health aid, as well as a body conditioner. According to some research, exercise can decrease our sensitivity to the way our body reacts to anxiety. Researchers found that exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, was helpful in easing anxiety. Many recommend calming exercises like yoga or tai chi, and I think those can be helpful, but don’t discount higher intensity exercises—spinning or rowing. Perhaps a slower, calming cardio, like swimming works for you. I also love weight training for pushing out anxious thoughts. I focus on lifting the heavy weight and my mind has to concentrate on exerting that effort. I expend some of my negative energy when I lift weights. Afterward, I feel stronger and that helps me believe that I can overcome my fears and anxiety. Here's an article on the mental health benefits of exercise. Experiment with different exercise intensities until you find one that feels good both in the moment and hours later.
Next is music. They say music calms the savage beast, and I believe it. It’s funny how old memories come to mind when I remember these sayings I heard as a child. I’m dating myself here, but when I was a child I used to watch Bugs Bunny,. There was this episode where Bugs decided to make money by renting a Hurdy Gurdy and a monkey. What’s a Hurdy Gurdy you ask? This phrase was new to me—it’s a street organ that you pushed like a cart. Here's an old video of the Bugs episode. Give yourself a chuckle and watch it.
Bugs sets out to make money; he cranks out the music while a little monkey climbs up NYC’s skyscrapers collecting money from tenants’ windows. Would you give money to a monkey that appeared at your apartment window? 😂
When the little monkey tries to swindle Bugs out of the money, Bugs fires him. The monkey goes back to the zoo and tells this big gorilla what happened. Enraged, the gorilla busts into Bug's apartment ready to pounce, but Bugs pulls out his handy violin and begins playing music “to soothe the savage beast.” It works, and in the last scene, we see the gorilla happily jumping from window to window collecting wades of money. It’s a great cartoon!
Often, when I think about music calming me down, I think of that gorilla. I’m the gorilla and music does work its magic. I don’t care what type you listen to, get a good playlist (check out mine on Youtube if you want to listen to some of my favorites). They say that classical or other soothing music calms us by lowering our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone response. But I’ve also found that my drum and bass beats (and fast pace music) can energize me in a way that diverts the fight or flight activation. I like to dance, so I think the combination of fast, pop, hip hop, or electronica music with the action of dancing works (like exercise does) to release my stress and then I feel calm afterward. Experiment with it, perhaps listening to music while drawing or crafting releases your stress.
The last tool is art-making or other creative pursuits. We can reduce the internal chatter and reengage our calm by using our hands (and minds) in creative activities that have meaning for us. Every time I journal when anxious, I write it out until I eventually come to a point where the severity and immediacy of the anxious moment subsides a bit. If you get really engrossed in a creative activity and enter a flow state, your consciousness changes and you lose track of time. It’s hard for the fight or flight response to compete with your total immersion in some joyful and purposeful act.
Instead of talking about this, I want to direct you to a mandala art-making activity. Here's an article called Can You Meditate Through Art? You'll learn mindful breathing as you make a beautiful mandala. I’ll be making mine soon (and may share it with you). Will you share yours? Please do, reply to this email with a photo of your mandala, or find me on Instagram (Let the Verse Flow) and tag me with a photo of your mandala.
📚Journal Prompts for Breathwork
I’ve given you a lot of tools to tap into today. Please don’t get overwhelmed, you aren’t meant to do all of them every day. Pick one when you are off-kilter and unhinged by the fight or flight response. Let’s manage our stress by embracing things that feel good.
Today’s journal prompts will help you reflect on your breath so that you can become mindful of how your breathing affects your mind and spirit.
During mindful breathing, ask yourself:
Until next time, don’t forget to stay on the bright side of the beat.🌞
Music: My thanks to all the musicians who make incredible music and have the courage to put it out into the world. All music for my podcast is sourced and licensed for use via Soundstripe.
Songs in this podcast episode:
Letting Go by Moments; Winning Streak by JeesGuy; Planets by Acreage; Pyaar Kee Seemaen by Cast of Characters
LTVF Season One Music Playlist: Check out the songs that inspire me, and connect with artists from many genres who add to our collective, human soundtrack.
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