Meditation: The Benefits of Deep Breathing

Are you stressed? Ever thought of trying meditation? It's not as hard as you think. The benefits of deep breathing are many. The U.S. army uses meditation to keep their soldiers less stressed and more capable of doing their job.

They teach soldiers to use breathing exercises for anxiety and to calm themselves. How do they do this? Do they pull they their yoga mats out in the middle of the battlefield and sit in the lotus position? No, they don't have time for that. So they use easier types of meditation.

One is called open awareness, where they try to just be aware of all the things that are going on around them without passing any judgment. They can focus on the sights and sounds, the feelings of their feet on the ground or their clothes on their body, the smells in the air. They just notice that they are there, without thinking too hard about anything.

Then they can reap the benefits of deep breathing, or "tactical breathing", as what they have decided to call it. By breathing in deeply it helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the "rest-and-digest" system.

The other system in the body is the sympathetic nervous system, or the "fight-or-flight" system. This is the one that's activated under times of stress. When this system is activated for too long, chronic stress can set in and cause a lot of problems for you.

Your body can do things that we can control, like kicking a ball, and other things that we can't control, like blood flowing and cells dividing. There are two things that we can do, however, that fit into both categories: breathing and blinking our eyes. We can make ourselves breathe or we can just let our body do it on its own without thinking about it. Same for blinking our eyes.

So when we consciously breathe in deeply or blink our eyes, we tap into our relaxation system. We leave the stressed system and start to work the parasympathetic system.

How Do I get the Benefits of Deep Breathing? I Can't Focus for Very Long.

In "The Willpower Instinct", author Kelly McGonigal says that lots of people think that they don't know how to meditate or that it's too hard. They say that they can't concentrate for too long or their mind wanders. She says that it's not how good you are at it, it's simply the fact that you try.

Even if you can only go for a minute and then your mind wanders for the next few minutes, that action will have an effect on your brain. Besides, the people who are really good at it have been doing it for years, even decades. So don't expect yourself to be perfect at it from the beginning. Think of it as something like golf, where it's hard to hit the ball at first, but over the years you get better and better.

But again, to get the benefits of deep breathing, try the ways of meditation that the army uses, ways that don't require you to focus on something as much. To breathe deeply takes some focus, but you can still think of other things while you're doing it. Soldiers can still have conversations with each other or think about their next move. It's easier to do.

To start, aim for 5 or 6 breaths per minute. That's about 1 breath every 10 or 12 seconds. Sometimes when I breath deeply, I like to try blinking my eyes at the same time. Couldn't hurt, could it? Use both gateways to tap into the parasympathetic? Why not?

Too often we can let the world run us. We get stressed over deadlines, traffic, mean comments - you name it. Instead of reacting to the world, causing us despair, we can try to influence some control over our environment. Would you rather be buffeted around by the waves or up on top, riding the waves?

The army says, however, that the benefits of deep breathing stop once you become in too intense a physical state, like heavy exercise or physical demands. You're breathing so hard and your mind is so taxed that it overrides the ability to focus on the deep breathing.

The human body does have its limits. Author Lt. Col. Dave Grossman says in his book "On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace" that before the advent of electricity, all wars were fought during the day. But once 24/7 lighting was invented, wars were fought around the clock.

They found, however, that 98% of the soldiers got psychiatric illnesses after about 2 to 3 months in that environment. (The other 2% were psychopaths, the normal percentage of psychopaths in the general population, and they were not affected mentally by the combat.) That's why they now put soldiers into battle for a short time and then pull them back out. They then let them rest and afterwards put them back in once they've recovered. Of course, this isn't perfect; soldiers today still get PTSD.

So we do have our limits. But for most of us, deep breathing can bring us many benefits. Lowered stress, more positive thinking, more energy. A better attitude. Is there any way you can incorporate breathing exercises for anxiety or stress into your days?

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