Surprising though this may sound but it’s important to breathe. Those of us who don’t eventually turn blue and start to smell. As for those of us fighting mental illness it’s even more important. In fact, breathing well, it’s possibly the best thing we can do to help us through our daily hurdles.
Pardon me as I state the bleeding obvious but breathing is one of those things we take for granted. Take a few seconds now to study your own breathing. I’d lay good money on the fact that you’re breathing from high in your chest rather than low in your abdomen. And while that may keep the Grim Reaper away it won’t do much for maintaining your mental health. This style of breathing becomes even more problematic when you become stressed as it’s easy to start panting rapidly and shallowly like a dog and that only aggravates your anxiety.
So try this little exercise. Relax, sit back and take a deep breath. Suck it slowly all the way down to the bottom of your belly and hold it for a few seconds. Now release it slowly and steadily over the course of a few seconds. Now do it again … and again … and again. In fact, do it for the next five minutes. I guarantee you will feel far better than you did when you started reading this piece.
Study after study shows that this controlled (or belly) breathing slows your heartbeat, lowers your blood pressure and helps release tension. Not bad for something that we can do whenever and wherever we want and for absolutely free. I wear a rubber band (because I’m a cheapskate) around my wrist to remind me to practise deep breathing every day and so should you.
If you want to take this exercise to an even more rewarding level find somewhere quiet such as a local park, an empty office or even an empty toilet cubicle. Plant your feet flat on the floor, your palms on your thighs and comfortably straighten your back, neck and head. Close your eyes or focus on a spot some two or three metres away and let your eyes drift out of focus.
Once settled, focus on your breathing. Take a long slow breath deep and hold it for a few seconds then release it gradually. Having completed your first breath count to yourself – One. Repeat the process – Two. Breathe again – Three. And on you go until you reach ten. Now start counting from one once again. When you reach ten, start at one once again and so it goes. Gradually, you’ll sense yourself falling into a rhythm and time will seem to pass quite quickly; you may even feel as if you’re in a slight trance.
After a bit of practise you’ll find you can do it pretty well wherever you wish and for as long as you wish. My daily commute is about 30 minutes and I sometimes devote it to losing myself totally in my breathing (don’t worry, I train rather than drive). I pick a spot and kick my eyes out of focus and off I go as totally oblivious to my fellow passengers as they are to me.
Not only is belly breathing incredibly easy, it’s also the foundation stone of virtually every form of mediation. And meditation has amazing benefits, especially for those of us who are mentally ill. After all, when was the last time you saw Buddha looking down in the mouth?
If you really want to get fancy with your breathing look no further than the wisdom of public speaker, author, advocate of alternative medicines and spiritualist, Deepak Chopra: