Why is Breathing Important?
“The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” Genesis 2:7
In a moment of anxiety, stress, or worry have you ever been told to breathe? Sometimes a friend or loved one might say something like, “its going to be ok, just breathe.” In those moments, it might be hard for you to do anything (let alone focus on breathing) and their advice might make you want to tell them…what they can do.
That’s understandable. In a moment of acute anxiety, someone telling you to breathe might be the last thing you want to hear…but could there be something to it?
You may have told a therapist about the most difficult life situation you have ever faced, and they tell you that it would be good to learn some coping strategies…then they tell you to practice breathing. Practice breathing? I breathe all day! It can be frustrating to hear, but let’s look at this a little more closely.
When we are anxious, our bodies begin to take shallow breaths (whether we realize it or not). It is part of our natural stress response. Muscles tense up, our heart rate increases, and we can’t help but breathe more rapidly. This is a chain reaction from the outside situation, the thoughts and emotions we feel about it, and the chemicals and signals released in our brain and body. Thoughts and emotions are not immaterial, and they cause a physical reaction inside of us—and it can be overwhelming. If there was a way to interrupt this chain reaction, we might be able to regain control.
Just as we have a natural stress response, we have a natural calming response. Our breathing is slow and regular, and our heart rate is steady. This is when we become relaxed, and the opposite chemicals and signal are released in our brains. If we were able to send the calming signals to our brain in a moment of anxiety, we could limit the stress response—that’s where breathing comes in.
As hard as we try, we cannot stop the chemicals being released in our bodies, our heart rate, or even the tensing of our muscles when we become anxious. If we pay attention our shoulders or jaws are clenched, and we can notice our rapid heartbeat. We can, however, control our breathing.
The breath is vastly important. It is the only life sustaining process we can actively take control of. From a spiritual standpoint it is the first contact we had with our Creator when life was breathed into us. From a practical standpoint it is the only calming response we can imitate in a time of stress. If we send the calming signal from just one part of the chain reaction happening during a stress response, it will disrupt the chain reaction. If the breath is the only part we can actively control, it is the piece that we can use to disrupt the stress response.
Breathing in deeply and then breathing out longer sends the signal that we are calm, or calming, and that signal is sent to the other parts of the stress response. The heart can slow, muscles relax, and the signals change. It won’t solve the problem we are facing, but it will change the stress response we are experiencing. That is why we have to breathe.