Whenever something happens that seems threatening or makes you feel scared, sad, disappointed, or mad, a small part of your brain in the back of your head, called the amygdala, becomes activated. The amygdala is sometimes referred to as the body’s guard dog, or alarm system. This is a special part of your brain which is designed to keep you safe and to help you to react quickly in the case of danger. The amygdala triggers a body response that helps your heart beat faster and your breath quicken, while making your muscles strong and powerful. If a baseball were hit directly at your face, your guard dog brain would sense danger and would help you get your glove up quickly to shield and protect your body.
Although the guard dog brain, or amygdala, helps your body act with speed and strength, it also interferes with the wise, thinking part or your brain, which is known as the pre-frontal cortex. You might think of your pre-frontal cortex as the body’s wise owl. When your guard dog brain becomes activated during times of stress, it can become very hard to think clearly, remember things, or solve complicated problems. This may happen when you’re getting ready to take a test or when you enter the doctor’s office for your flu shot. Although there is no real danger, your guard dog brain gets triggered, you start to feel anxious, and suddenly you are unable to recall all the information you studied the night before or you’re arguing with nurses. Some people have a sensitive amygdala that can be triggered very easily. These false alarms can leave a person feeling stressed and overwhelmed, struggling to make wise choices. This would be like the dog who barks every time the doorbell rings or a squirrel passes by the window. Science has shown us that one of the best ways to soothe the guard dog brain is with a special type of breathing.
The magic calming breath is an essential breathing tool that naturally de-activates the body’s stress response, quieting the guard dog brain, and helping you think more clearly. As you practice this type of breathing, you begin to train your body in the skill of relaxation. You may notice that your behavior becomes less explosive and more thoughtful. Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, you have the ability to reconnect with the calm, peaceful, stillness that resides inside of you.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. You may choose to close your eyes or have them open, gazing down at the floor in front of you. You choose whatever feels best. Start just by taking a few breaths and noticing what your breathing feels like in this moment. Now take an intentionally slow inhale through your nose and try to breathe deeply into your belly. You might notice your belly rising slightly, like a balloon filling with air. Exhale and slowly push the air out through your mouth using pursed lips, like you’re blowing out a birthday candle. When we’re practicing the magic calming breath, it can feel particularly relaxing if the exhale is roughly twice as long as the inhale. You can experiment with your breath and see what works for you. Count how long your natural inhale lasts and then see if you can draw out your exhale for a longer period of time. One person might like to inhale for 3 seconds and exhale for 6 seconds, while another person might enjoy an inhale of 4 seconds and an exhale of 8 seconds. For some people, the exhale may be only slightly longer than the inhale. If it’s possible, you want the breath to enter through your nose and the exhale to last longer than the inhale, but everyone’s body is different, so the actual breath counts will vary. Take a few magic calming breaths and notice how you feel. You may also like to put your hands on your heart in a gesture of kindness. This is a special way to take care of your body. If at any point, you start to feel dizzy or uncomfortable, return to your normal breathing pattern. Depending on the situation, you may need to take several calming breaths before your wise owl, thinking brain, can help you either devise solutions to the problem or accept things without making them worse.
It’s also very important to practice this relaxation breathing before you begin to feel upset because it can take a while for your body to really master the skill. You wouldn’t start by learning to surf on a giant tidal wave. In the same way, you don’t want to start practicing your magic calming breath when you’re already overcome by a wave of big feelings. Practice your magic calming breath when your feelings are more manageable, small little waves that will let your body slowly develop this relaxation skill. Over time, you’ll feel more confident using your magic calming breath to surf the really big waves without feeling so overwhelmed. Just remember, slow inhale through the nose, elongated exhale through pursed lips. Enjoy the process of helping your body feel calm and relaxed!