The human body can survive (agonizingly) about a month without food and nearly a week without water, but only a few minutes without breathing.
Ironically, many of us health conscious people are willing to spend physical, mental, and even financial resources to establish high quality eating and drinking habits for us and our children, yet pay little attention to establishing quality breathing habits.
Our inhalation/exhalation pattern of oxygen intake and carbon dioxide exhaust is so important to our survival that it immediately effects how think, act, feel, and perform. This is because our rate, depth, and general pattern of breathing is part of a feedback loop involving our nervous system that has helped us stay alive for years.
Schools and other institutions around the globe either have been, or are beginning to utilize deep breathing, meditation, and other forms of “mindful breathing” in order to help kids focus, self- regulate, and even deal with chronic pain.
While large population peer-reviewed research on the effectiveness of these interventions is sparse and inconclusive, teachers, parents, and even children overwhelmingly report improvements in mood, behavior, and even academic performance.
Why would something as simple as being aware of breathing create such a dramatic impact on the body and brain?
As I mentioned before, our general quality of breathing is tied to a feedback loop with our nervous system. To be specific, our “autonomic” nervous system. This aspect of the nervous system has two divisions:
- The sympathetic nervous system (gets the body turbo-charged to fight or flee for one’s life)
- The parasympathetic nervous system (maintains the body’s ability to rest, digest, sleep, etc.)
Breathing can either effect, or be effected by either one of these divisions of the autonomic nervous system. In other words, irregular breathing can alert the sympathetic nervous system to fire up to get you out of danger. Conversely, you can recognize danger and your sympathetic nervous system changes your breathing pattern to prepare you to fight or flee.
The same is true for the parasympathetic nervous system. Even though we see danger, we can somewhat override the fight or flee response with a quality breathing pattern. Ideally, in the absence of any true danger, we default to a regular, deep, and rhythmic “rest and digest” breathing pattern.
Consider how you or your child breath in a stressful situation. Shallow, tight, rapid, non- rhythmic, and even strained through the shoulders. In this situation, you will think, act, feel as if you are in danger. We become reactionary, emotionally charged, and impulsive.
Unfortunately over time, we humans have turned nearly all of life into a stressful situation. Technology has us stimulated with no relent. We’re overcommitted. We celebrate busy. We hold “stress” as a badge of honor. “If you’re not stressed, you’re not doing it right.”
The fight or flee division of our nervous system has gone from a situational life saver to our default operating system. We think, act, and feel accordingly. Our children mirror our lifestyle, so the same holds true for them. An impulsive, agitated nervous system in combination with children’s inherent detriment in self-regulation can be a recipe for disaster.
With quality breathing habits, both adults and children can heighten the “rest and digest” system to manually override the fight or flee default and convince the brain to focus, relax, and think rationally. Consider the implications of this on behavior and academic performance in the classroom and beyond.
Here’s a “mindful breathing” checklist:
- Breath in through the nose, out through the mouth or nose.
- The shoulders should not dramatically rise and fall with the breathing cycle.
- While the chest will rise slightly, the belly should noticeably expand during inhalation and contract during exhalation.
- The neck should not have to be strained upward during inhalation.
- Inhalation should be slow and controlled. Exhalation should be controlled and intentional.
While there are literally thousands of different practices to improve breathing, it’s important to start simple. With kids, merely learning to breath through the nose while expanding the belly is a good starting point.
Take a moment to watch the “cone breathing” activity below.
Start with a 30 second time period, and increase to five minutes over time.
Imagine the benefits of using this activity at the end of a class, right before bed, or during a time children need to decrease their state of arousal or agitation.
Help kids and adults feel, act, and live extraordinary with mindful breathing habits!