The gift of deep breathing:
end insomnia and reclaim your health
Very early in life, we humans discover that deep breathing is a very effective way to relieve stress. But stop for a moment and think about what you were experiencing the first time you knew that to be true. You weren’t thinking, “Gee I’d really like to relieve my stress….” Of course not. When you intuitively began deep breathing exercises, all you knew was that it did something physical to you that felt better. It was really an experience of “this helps my heart to not be racing so fast,” or “my stomach is no longer in a knot,” or “that tight feeling in the center of my throat and chest is gone now.”
All of those benefits from deep breathing are much more physical responses than emotional ones. And the lesson we learn from that (which was never taught to me in medical school) is that working with your breath is a powerful way to change physiology (that’s a medical word which just means “how systems in the body work”). So specifically in the discussion about insomnia treatment, let’s talk about breathing exercises which can promote healthy sleep.
The breathing techniques which I will introduce here are just a very small sampling of ways to use the breath as your ally in good health and sleep. The first point to be made is simply to illustrate the power of stopping to take a nice, deep relaxing breath. In fact, now would be a good time to do just that. At the end of this sentence, pause, adjust your posture, drop your shoulders, let your hands settle comfortably in your lap, let your eyes close, and take a deep breath in… then let it float back out.
Done? I would love to be sitting with you right now to hear about what you felt. Did you feel some muscles that were tense begin to relax? Did the shoulders feel looser? Did some tightness around your eyes and jaws begin to let go? Even maybe a little tingly sensation in the hands and feet? A little more moisture in the mouth?
Any of those sensations are only the body changes on the surface which make you aware that physiology is changing. The underlying changes are really a shift in body chemistry, and it works like this. During stress, fear or panic, the “fight or flight” response begins in the brain and instructs the body to raise levels of hormones which assist in such emergencies. Body chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol go up, which not only keep you awake and alert but also can create disease if unrelieved. A deep breathing exercise is one powerful step to reverse those stress hormones.
I hope you can see now that purposeful breathing exercises are a practice which can benefit your health profoundly. And when practiced on a daily basis, they reduce the chronic level of stress hormones many of us carry, reduce the anxiety that accompanies that stress, and makes both going to sleep and staying asleep more likely. So make a habit of being aware of your body sensations that signal stress, and when you feel them, take that breathing exercise pause as often as needed.
In addition to a deep breathing practice, there are some other breathing techniques which are also very powerful. The simplest is the practice of breath observation. This is just what it says: taking the time to observe your breath, being fully aware of its movement in and out, and bringing the mind’s attention back to the breath as soon as it wanders onto another thought. No need to modify the breath or breathe deeply, just observe it as it is. This is really a very simple form of meditation, and surprisingly powerful for how simple it is. We have research data for example which shows that this breathing technique, when practiced twice a day for 10 minutes, improves high blood pressure. When practiced consistently, we find that it tends to quiet the busy and anxious thoughts of the mind. So it is very useful for easing into sleep or going back to sleep in the night for someone with an anxiety disorder or racing thoughts.
With this short introduction, I hope I have whetted your appetite to learn more about the power of breathing exercises and deep breathing. Use them consistently and you will discover that they are not only a natural sleep aid, but also a powerful ally for your natural health.
To your health and wellness,
Robert Pendergrast, M.D.