Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How I Learned to Breathe

There is some kind of allegory about a bird that wanted a drink of water and the only water around was deep inside some kind of clay vessel that the bird could not get to.  Somehow, the bird realizes that the way to get access to the water is to fill the jar with little pebbles, one at a time, until the water level is high enough for him to drink out of.  It took quite a bit of time.  A little at a time, gradually, changes can be made that end up making a big impact.

Eighteen and a half years ago, I gave birth to a giant-baby.  Well, I know that my giant-baby was not THE biggest giant-baby ever in the whole world, but my giant-baby was giant to me.  At nearly 23-inches long and over nine pounds (three pounds heavier than the previous baby), the delivery of this baby immediately enabled me to take a deep breath - deeper than I’d been able to breathe in months.  I did not realize how much I hadn’t been able to breathe until I was finally able to fully breathe again.  I remember taking deep breaths, enjoying them as someone might enjoy a big glass of water after not drinking for a day or two.  If I had had this giant-baby surgically implanted into my abdomen at his delivery-size, I would have felt like I was suffocating, but since his growth had been gradual and the restriction on my lungs had come on a little at a time, the full impact was not completely realized until it was gone.

Changes that happen gradually can be easier for us to accept and embrace, or they can gradually seep into our “regular” existence barely detected until they’ve become a type of debilitating force, depending on what the change is.

Women I work with often come to me for help after they have tried “everything else” – diets, doctors, drugs and self-deprivation – to attempt to get healthy.  Rarely, do my clients come to me because they feel overwhelmed by stress, yet stress is often at the root of many of their health problems.  It’s actually attributed to over 80% of all illnesses diagnosed in this country.  Stress is one of those things that can begin quite small.  Little by little the pebbles get dropped into the jar, and what initially seemed like a shallow collection of “stuff” begins to fill our “vessels” as more and more seemingly harmless and unrelated little things brought in through fairly weak transports or in subtle ways suddenly brims over.  This “brimming over”, or suffocating, is commonly manifested as insomnia, anxiety, hair-loss, heart palpitations, adrenal fatigue, muscle twitching, gall-bladder inflammation, skin rashes, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, fibromyalgia, weight gain and more.  One constant theme I see woven throughout is the inability to breathe, yet breathing – deep breathing – can create a huge impact on our overall health.

I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Marc Hyman lecture while I was in school (IIN).  Both of them spoke about the powerful de-stressing ability that breathing can have on our body’s chemistry.  I learned about the vagus nerve – a nerve that runs from the base of our brains down one side of our necks and into our diaphragms.  When we take a full deep breath, this nerve is activated, or stretched, setting off a reaction that I don’t fully understand, except that in our brains, something is secreted that actually helps to destroy cortisol.  Cortisol is the stress hormone (also known as the belly-fat hormone) – one of the hormones that is secreted when we are under stress.  Cortisol actually destroys one of the key ingredients needed for production of serotonin.  Serotonin is the “feel-good” chemical, the one produced when we exercise, giving off the runner’s “high”.

When you consider that we take in between 24,000 and 28,000 breaths each day, the opportunity for impact based on how we breathe carries enormous potential.  The shallow, upper-lobe breaths many of us take throughout the day stimulate the stress-receptors located there.  The lower lobes of our lungs contain calming receptors.  Often, studies quote the amazingly low percentage of our lung capacity many of us even use.  By purposefully breathing deeper breaths, we stimulate receptors that actually make us more relaxed.

Give it a try right now.  Wherever you are sitting, take a nice deep-belly breath by completely exhaling all of the air in your lungs and breathing in a nice, slow, deep breath…  Repeat.

Do you see how just simply taking a deep breath not only forces you to slow down for a moment, but it can alter the chemical reactions going on in your body?  These chemical reactions are the ones that, left unchecked for years, can contribute to the accumulation of belly fat, fatigue, and cravings for “quick energy” foods, among other things.  Large waste-lines are associated with developing type-2 diabetes (they are not the only factor).  Inadequate serotonin levels are associated with insomnia, anxiety and depression.

A few years ago, I realized I’d been forgetting to breathe.  Distractions and daily stressors can cause us to forget this important act, from time to time.  As we become more and more tense, our breathing becomes more and more shallow preparing to respond to pending stress and the rest of our body follows suit.  I found myself running through my day, one day to the next, in a state of high-intensity and stress, facing burn-out.  Reading self-help books helped me articulate my problems and gave solutions for fixing them (or ideas for fixing the people who were causing them ;-), but they never told me what I needed to do in the interim for me…now.  Often, I would lie in bed at night, feeling like I was suffocating.  I would struggle to get a deep breath.  My brow was in a constant “furrow”.  I had a hard time not feeling “on alert”.  I eventually found out that I simply needed to learn to breathe – and breathe often, throughout each day.

Today, no matter how stressful the situations I find myself in, no matter how helpless I feel to fix things, I know that one thing I can do is breathe.  I do it in the car during high-traffic times, while waiting in long check-out lines at the store, when out for a run.  I even practice deep breathing in non-stressful situations.  It’s become a regular part of my day, throughout each day and that simple act begins a chain reaction that brings me back to a healthier more peaceful inside, no matter what is going on, on the outside.

Elly Haddad is a certified holistic health coach and founder of Elemental Fit - a health coaching practice devoted to educating and equipping women to create balanced lives for themselves and their families.  She works with clients all over the United States in-person and via phone conducting one-on-one counseling sessions, group workshops, teleseminars and cooking classes.  Through improving overall health, her clients find success in conquering cravings, developing healthy eating habits, weight-loss, stress reduction and more.  

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