THE BLOG

Why Mindful Breathing Works

11/26/2012 07:17 am ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

Giving feedback is a whole lot easier than receiving it, especially about writing. So today, when I got an earful about what how to improve my blogs on mindfulness, I felt stressed. But then I remembered to practice what I preach. Put simply, I took a conscious breath, and then another, and so on.

As a result, I gained two insights. First, I can and should strive to write better, as I hope this post will demonstrate. Second, when I follow my own advice (and that of many, many others who promote these techniques), I become increasingly confident that mindfulness really does work if only we choose to practice.

In sum, my critic commented that my ubiquitous advice "to breathe" is simply too vague, and (cringe, cringe) too New Agey. He said, "I want to know why it works in order to believe that it really is useful." He's got a point. So here's my rational response, and it begins with understanding stress and the brain.

We experience "stress" when a specific stressor triggers the sympathetic nervous system, causing the more primitive part of the brain to launch a series of automatic physiological changes known as the fight or flight response. These changes include increased heart rate, muscle tone, blood pressure and concentration/focus. We maintain this heightened state of arousal until the parasympathetic system returns both body and mind to resting state.

The fight or flight response can be adaptive or maladaptive. Its great when you have to react rapidly to a discrete stimulus -- something that is time-limited and followed by rest. For example, fight or flight will serve you well if you have to jump out of the way to avoid an oncoming car or just before you make a job-related presentation.

But fight or flight isn't a good fit for ongoing stressful experiences that cause anxiety and from which there is no time for rest and recovery; for example, when you have relentless demands in the workplace or relationship difficulties at home. Chronic stress like this can negatively impact cognitive functioning, emotion regulation and physical health, both in the short- and long-term.

Managing stress is essential for creating the conditions that foster success, health and wellbeing. Not surprisingly, there are short- and long-term strategies for managing stress. Mindfulness can be both, and practicing mindfulness enhances cognitive functioning (including memory, concentration and performance), improves emotion regulation and resilience, increases self-awareness (including of one's own stress level) and promotes relaxation for the body as well as rest for the mind (including sleep).

As a short-term strategy, we can focus on applying mindfulness in the here and now. One strategy is to pause briefly and repeatedly throughout the day. Just shifting your attention from whatever is going on to the act of taking a single purposeful breath can make a meaningful contribution to managing stress. The directions are very simple:

Focus on taking a single, full, breath.
Observe (notice if you lose focus on that single, full breath).
Refocus, if needed.

To understand how pausing works, consider that chronic stress affects the brain much as running too many applications simultaneously impacts your computer's performance. After all, the brain is a computer of sorts. And both suffer when overloaded.

Dealing with too many mental tasks, especially when loaded with emotion, decreases the brain's processing speed and triggers frustration. When you pause, you purposefully concentrate on a brief single task to clear your mind. This very brief pause helps the "thinking" part of your brain catch up with the "emotional" part, priming you to refocus more clearly and make better decisions.

Pausing works best if you practice and develop skill applying the technique even in the most stressful conditions. So, you might practice pausing:

• Before answering the phone.
• While waiting for your computer to boot.
• Walking to the bathroom/to get coffee.
• Beginning and end of meetings.
• Before responding to challenging emails, verbal statements, etc.
• Before drinking or eating.
• When you wake up in the morning/before going to sleep at night.

Mental fitness (like physical fitness) involves training. Both begin with effort and instruction and both require ongoing practice and perseverance. Both also become easier and more effective as baseline fitness increases.

There's only one catch: The benefits of mental fitness (like physical fitness) are proportionate to the training. Pausing supports resilience, promotes health and enhances quality of life. And it works, if you use it. I know, I paused today and heard my critic's words as gifts, not attacks. I'm grateful for those words, and their results.

For more by Deborah Schoeberlein, click here.

For more on stress, click here.