We are living in an unprecedented moment. Every person around the world is experiencing changes with work, relationships, and daily routines. The uncertainty of how to balance new challenges and prepare for what is to come is emotionally exhausting. It can lead to destabilization of mental and physical health. Engaging in a conscientious breathing practice cannot prevent or cure COVID-19, but it can help your body prepare to fight the virus should you come into contact with it. How is this possible?
The physiological effects of stress on the body
The natural human response to stress, among other things, represses the immune system. A mindful breathing practice can help to bring your immune system back to a more robust state of being.
In a perfect world, a strong stress response is a good thing. It is our nervous system’s way of telling us that it perceives a threat and prepares our body to survive. It increases our heart rate and opens our blood vessels. This allows blood to move quickly to our arms and legs so we can fight off a predator or jump out of the way of an oncoming car. When the stress response is triggered it also shuts down body systems that are deemed non-essential in the critical moment, such as digestion and elimination, reproduction, and immune response. When the threat is relatively short-lived, this system increases our chance of survival. After the threat is eliminated or contained, the body switches to a resting response where the internal systems needed to maintain a healthy body come back online. However, when the threat continues for weeks or months or even years, the nervous system and all the other body systems that respond to it can become out of balance. The result is many of the “stress-related” diseases so prevalent in American society today, such as heart disease and diabetes. With the new threat of COVID-19, the hit to our immune system under new and ongoing sources of stress poses an obvious problem.
How does conscientious breathing support the immune system?
Breathing is unique among body systems in that it is governed most of the time by the autonomic nervous system AND it can be controlled by your conscious mind. Data coming out of some of the top research institutions in the US indicate that how you breathe influences the brain’s perception of stress.[i] You can choose to breathe in a way that signals to your brain that things are under control; the autonomic nervous system can activate its “resting” system.
What does it mean to breathe in a way that sends the right signals to your brain? If the sympathetic (stress response) system is over-activated and you want to bring balance to your nervous system, the simplest technique is to balance your breathing. That is, measure your breath so that your inhale and exhale are the same length. Even 10 breaths can begin to bring you back into balance. More breaths will bring greater balance. Longer inhales and exhales will also have a more profound effect on your brain, your body, and your mind. If you want to enhance a feeling of calmness further, once you feel balanced, you can slowly extend the exhale so that it is longer than the inhale.
To help you get started, please enjoy this audio recording of a 5 minute exercise designed to achieve balance and calmness.