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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Hapiness Habits Experiment - Habit 2... And Breathe

We all know that stress is part of contemporary life and that too much is bad for us, physically and mentally. Our early ancestors developed a mind-body alarm system to save them from physical harm and possible death. Evolution being a slow process, the system hasn't yet adapted to Western, twenty-first century living and the alarm is still activated by our feelings of anxiety and fear. Today, worrying situations are unlikely to threaten our survival, yet our brain interprets them as d-a-n-g-e-r-o-u-s and triggers the body into the primitive "Fight or Flight" reaction.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

When there is no need for, and no possibility of, actual fight or flight, the physical and psychological symptoms of this are unpleasant and distressing. Though you need this mechanism for your physical survival in times of real danger and, sometimes, just to boost your responses, it's not useful or healthy to be often or excessively stressed and anxious. You cannot begin to relax into happiness if you spend much time feeling like this.

Getting into the simple habit of slow, regular breathing allows you to reduce your stress levels, in general, and also in particularly difficult situations.

To practice, sit in a comfortable chair, back straight and well supported, feet flat on the floor. It can help to close your eyes. Become aware of your breathing: feel the air coming in and out of your lungs, cold through your nose as you inhale; warm as you exhale. Focus on your OUT breaths.

Breathe in a long, slow breath, right down into your diaphragm (you should be able to feel your belly, not your chest, going in and out) until your lungs are expanded fully (but stop before you feel you're going to burst). Breathe out slowly until your lungs are completely empty (but not so you're gasping).

Breathe in and out five times like this, in your head counting up to five as you breathe in and back down from five to one as you breathe out. Keep the in and out breaths regular and flowing; don't hold the breath at any point. After five deep breaths, breathe more gently and normally and find your natural rhythm as you breathe in and out. If you can make the out breath longer, that's good.

"When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath."
Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century)

So how do you feel now?

Your body is less tense and more relaxed and your mind quieter and calmer. You have induced this state of calm in yourself. Congratulate yourself. Taking satisfaction in this achievement will activate some of the pleasure centres in your brain and release endorphins which increase your feelings of well-being.

By changing your breathing, you are changing your physical response to a situation. The message your body is giving your brain is: “I am breathing in a calm, relaxed manner therefore I am in control.” As your brain registers this message, it assumes any danger has passed and deactivates the Fight or Flight response.

In our Happiness Habits Experiment this is Habit No. 2. We are asking you to practice this (and any of the five other Habits) at least once a day for three weeks. You can do it anywhere: watching TV, on public transport, at your desk – and as you do so, you will start to raise the threshold at which your Fight or Flight reaction kicks in. Soon you will be able to use it in any situation and induce calm in a couple of minutes. Before long it will become an automatic reaction to any stressful situation as well as something you just do to increase your sense of ease. In the following weeks, notice how much you use this new skill and what positive effects it has for you.

You can also get our FREE Relaxation Audio here

Posted by Lucy

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