COVID-19 doesn’t sound like a very nice way to leave this earth. Lots of reports of people gasping for breath and yet I have always loved the quote – where there is breath, there is hope. Apparently stemming from the Latin – Dum Spiro Spero. (Not that I studied Latin; it clashed with German on the timetable and I was living in Germany at the time). Because we have also heard about 96 year olds with underlying lung conditions pulling through and 106 year olds making it back home from hospital. There was even a 113 year old in Spain who survived it. Amazingly positive stories to counter lots of negative ones.
The Power of Breath
Yet it’s only in the last decade or so that I have become aware of the enormous power of breath.
I’d read about meditation and mindfulness but I didn’t take much notice of it until I started researching resilience. I was too busy! I then discovered that it wasn’t fluffy mumbo jumbo, it was scientifically proven to enhance our wellbeing.
When we breathe from our diaphragm it stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system – the one that seeks to restore the body’s homeostasis or balance. Even better it complements the sympathetic nervous system or survival system – the one that prepares us for fight, flight or freeze. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated the survival system is put out of action. We are in that all-important recovery mode or rest and digest mode conserving energy, slowing our heart rate down, lowering blood pressure and increasing digestion. It even increases our sexual arousal – so if none of the above encourages you to do it, then maybe this one will!
3 Easy Ways To Stimulate Powerful Breathing
Now despite all that knowledge, I can’t claim to meditate for an hour a day or regularly and consistently practice mindfulness. I have tried several times over the years and heroically failed. I take my hat off to those who do and I know it works wonders – so give it a try. But, if you’re like me, and for whatever reason don’t manage to pull it off, then there are plenty of alternative ways of doing it. Here are my three favourites:
1. When you feel yourself getting stressed or agitated, just stop whatever you are doing and take a few long deep breaths in and out. I love making the exhalation as long as possible because you’re literally expelling toxins from the body.
2. Slow down generally. If you’re a fast walker, try ambling. If you’re a fast eater, try putting your knife and fork down between mouthfuls. If you’re a fast talker, speak deliberately slowly. Slowing down your pace of life will stop you snatching your breath and give you time and space to breathe more deeply.
3. Practice mindfulness in the moment. When you’re out walking, stop and focus on one of your key senses – sight, sound or feelings. Notice how many different shades of green there are in the trees or determine to notice something new every time you do a regular walk. Stop and tune into the sounds around you – everything you can hear – birdsong, traffic, whistling, maybe even your own breath. Intentionally focus on what you’re sensing – the wind on your face, the heat or the cold on a certain part of your body, the earth under your feet (even better barefoot!). These little conscious acts bring you out of your head and into the present moment. You will immediately notice the change in your breathing.
Breath or Inspiration?
The other hugely important aspect of stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system is that we retain full access to our pre-frontal cortex or executive brain. The home of our higher human powers including inspiration and creativity.
The word inspire stems from the Latin word ‘inspirare’ actually meaning to breathe into. Deities were deemed to breathe life into us lesser mortals! And we could do with all the inspiration we can get right now.
- Business owners need to think on their feet and come up with creative ways of staying in business or pivoting to address new customer needs and stay ahead of the game
- Leaders need to continue inspiring and motivating their team’s despite the challenging circumstances
- Those who anticipate losing their jobs or have already been made redundant need to think laterally about their transferable skills and come up with creative ways of standing out and differentiating themselves
- And we’ve all been coming up with creative ways of staying in touch, staying positive and keeping ourselves, our families and children connected and entertained.
We need access to our creative powers and deep, intentional breathing keeps those pathways open.
Retaining Hope, Not Hopelessness
Last but by no means least. Whilst the survival system encourages us to see things more negatively – looking for the foe or enemy, focussing on the problem, becoming aggressive or defensive – the parasympathetic nervous system enables us to do the opposite. With full access to our executive brain we can befriend and support others, collaborate, see potential opportunities and keep things in perspective. In other words, retain hope in humanity and the future.
Thus, where there is breath, there is hope. There is quite literally hope of life after COVID. There is full access to our executive brain and the creativity, mental agility and empathy we need right now. And there is the resultant hope and belief required to dig deep, to be mentally strong and to persist – all key aspects of the resilience we need to carry us through this crisis and beyond.