This is a fairly long post (2000 words, with a couple of videos if you prefer that). There are a couple of exercises to help you peer through the window of your breath, with more for subscribers at the bottom of the page.
3 main influences
There are three main influences on how you breathe
- 🧠 Your brainstem. This runs a feedback loop to maintain your blood's acid-base balance. It triggers your lungs to increase or decrease how much they breathe as needed.
- 🧎 Voluntary breathing. You can choose how to breathe, if you want to. Your breathing is the only body system with both automatic and voluntary control.
- 💦Your limbic system. If you are very stressed, it takes over and speeds your breathing up. The rest of the time, it's influence is more subtle. Driven by your emotions, health, energy levels, and much else.
It's this third influence and connection that makes breathing so useful. Your breathing responds to an emotional change before you could ask yourself "how am I feeling". You already are feeling, after all. And it's (nearly) always honest in response.
Breathing as a Window into your internal state
How you breathe varies when you are happy or sad, fearless or optimistic, aroused or enthused. It varies when someone you are with displays emotion, too. And when you read. Or daydream. Or plan.
And, it reflects your subconscious thinking. All the memories an idea connects with, that are not passed on to your conscious mind. The emotions associated with those memories. And much else.
Your breath is an indicator of what is going on in the parts of your brain and body to which you have no conscious access. It gives you information about how you feel that you cannot access any other way.
How are you breathing?
Once you start to take notice, you'll see how closely your breath mirrors your emotions.
Quick breath 💨💨💨 anxious
Slow, long breaths, like a wave lapping a shore 🌊 🌊 🌊 content and pleased
Soon, those associations become automatic, you'd be able to tell what you're feeling, or about to feel based on your breath.
Then... use it a a way to quickly tell what you are feeling. When are the times when your breath starts to quicken during the day? When does it slow down.
The trick is to connect your breathing patterns with your emotions. And to do that enough times for the associations to become instant and automatic. Like learning any new skill, you need a few reps to get good at it. To explore the nuances takes as much time as you want to put to it. Decades.
Breathwork practitioners call this breath awareness. The idea is not to intervene in how you are breathing, just to notice it. So, let's do that now.
How are you breathing?
• Shallow — deep.
• Slow — fast.
• At a consistent rate?
• Into your stomach, your chest, both?
• Through your nose or your mouth?
And how are you feeling? Not - what are the triggers of your feelings. Simply- how are you feeling? What's your emotional state? How's your body feel? Tense? Excited? Relaxed? Tired? Horny? Hungry?
Spend a moment, now, thinking about that combination. This will tie your current breathing and emotional state in your conscious mind.
Do that again a few times today, and tomorrow. For those of you who like routines, tie this into a routine. For those of you who like data, write it down and use it as a baseline. Over time, you'll become aware of how your breathing reflects your emotional state.
Now, you can use your breath to make decisions. How?
When you're relatively calm, examine your options. Spend a little time visualizing what might result from each. Which felt better?
Decision made. (Yes, I know, it won't be that easy at first. Practice, and it will be.)
Let's explore this further
Adapted transcript of main points:
How is Breath a window?
It's the indicator to what you can see. So the way that it's useful to solve things is because it gives you an honest and unbiased approach to what your emotions really are in different situations. The emotions that you're feeling to which your breath is responding to are the fully complicated emotions by your subconscious.
They're not just the stuff that you're consciously thinking about. They're the complex bits that are all played together. It's everything your brain can put together feeds through into your emotions.
The emotions that you can perceive through your breath are partly the result of that. So using that in decision-making lets you make far more complex decisions really easily because you get that feedback from yourself.
How can I use my breath to make decisions?
You need to be calm to be able to use any of these techniques, because if you're feeling stressed, it will override a lot of anything to do with how you perceive yourself. Self perception is incredibly tough when you're stressed.
If you're facing a decision or a challenge in life and you really have no idea what to do, one of the easiest ways to find out what you truly think about it is to visualize the two, three, or 10 alternative paths and work out which feels best. But the problem is, most people are terrible at working out how they feel. They're very dishonest with themselves about how they feel. They think about how they should feel in each situation and all sorts of external pressures come on to them.
So they think, "Well, I should be happiest with this path because it gives me a steady career and lots of money" rather than "This path is actually the one that I'm really feeling most excited about". So if you can perceive your emotional state through your breath, it's more honest with you.
So spend a little time visualizing each of the different paths available to you and see how your breathing changes. One path might seem really exciting and fun. One path might seem really relaxing and calm. One might just make you feel happy. Use these as part of your information.
If I can't breathe due to stress, what should I do?
Well, you've done the first bit which is noticing that you're stressed and you're finding it difficult to breathe! The answer depends on your context. Find a way to focus on your breath. It's one of the easiest ways to resettle yourself. You don't even need to force your breath to change.
Just notice how you're breathing. If you keep your mind on your breathing for a minute, even half a minute, you'll probably notice it starting to slow down.
Yet it doesn't work for everybody. Obviously for anybody who's verging on a panic attack, it's a different story. But for most people who are feeling a bit tight chested and a bit like their breath is all up here and tensed, just noticing how you're breathing and sitting there for a minute or two will help it to slow down. Just the awareness is enough in that situation.
How does breathing reflect subconscious thinking?
Let's use the example of reading a book. If you're reading a book slowly, your brain is predicting as much as it is actually reading. So you read the word track and in your brain, you're pulling together all sorts of different things. So you might be tracking a moving object in the sky and getting your arm ready to catch it. Particularly if you're somebody who plays a lot of sports, your body is getting ready to catch just from reading that. Or you might have lived near a train track when you were young and feel nostalgic for no particular reason because track reminds you of trains.
All of that happens without you knowing it while you're reading. As long as you're reading slowly, all of those things that kind of flash through your subconscious and affect how you feel don't get surfaced all at once because it will be completely overwhelming.
The subconscious brings up what it thinks is most relevant to you at the time. But the stuff that it hasn't surfaced still affects how you feel. It still feeds into all of the kind of autonomous systems that you don't know about. So you have no conscious access at the moment of how much adrenaline is in your blood or how fast you're breathing.
Think about it. What I'm trying to get people to realize through talking about their breath is that you need a window to realize how you're actually feeling all of those different influences. How you feel influences what is surfaced to your conscious mind and what's available to your conscious.
If you feel really stressed, you see less options in making a decision. If you feel really kind of anxious and scared, you'll see an offer of help as threatening instead, because that's the bits of your mind that are playing at that point in time. And if you're aware of how you feel, you can take that into account when making decisions and make them more easily better.
Most people think of the subconscious in a really esoteric way where it's all about like spirit guides and things. I'm just trying to go with the plain biology. Really, the explanation is magic. Nobody knows how any of this works, but I'm trying to go with an explanation that people will find more useful.
And that reflects our current scientific understanding of how the brain works, but really the explanations magic.
Our bodymind is magic
Where did this knowledge come from?
Breathing as reflective of your emotion is a really kind of well-proven thing in all of the literature to do with breath awareness. I've talked specifically about a book by Dan Brule called "Just Breathe".
He goes onto breath work, where you use your breath to intervene on your body. But the breath awareness literature is far deeper and far more well-proven.
It's an awful lot of neuroscience that shows the links between the different parts of the brain and the way that information flows around in your brain. The reading example I used that shows how even the simplest things influence your emotions in a subconscious fashion is from Marianne Wolf's "Reader Come Home". It's a neuroscience way of reading and shows the link between things that you don't know you're thinking about and the emotional centers of your brain. They are the ones that regulate all of the hormones and chemical messages that affect how you breathe, that influence your breathing system through your limbic system.
Be careful with intervening on something you don't understand. It's very easy to use breathing techniques to trick your body into relaxation, without solving the problem that is making it stressed in the first place.
"How to Breathe" - Coaching PDF Guide
In the guide below you'll find excerpts from my book DEEP LIFE on this topic as well as a series of breathing and concentration exercise. These will help you to start connecting your breathing patterns with your emotions. The trick is to do that enough times for the associations to become instant and automatic. You will also learn the importance of breathing to allow your Parasympathetic system to regulate your interoceptive senses and restore balance to your body. And how to regulate your emotions, too.
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