Setting up a Foundation for Self-Care: Breath
Self-care has become quite the buzzword and it’s very inspiring how many people are taking the initiative to care for themselves and treat their bodies with respect. Unfortunately, the buzz around self-care has become a bit blurry too, and it can be intimidating trying to balance a self-care regimen, let alone know where to start. As a self-care coach and holistic therapist, the biggest gaps I see are in people’s ability to stay consistent in their self-care practice because they haven’t set the proper foundation for themselves to practice on. Self-care is a multifaceted practice and it’s more than just a monthly massage or occasional bubble bath, although every little bit counts too.
Think of self-care as meeting your body’s basic needs: breath, movement, eating, hydrating, resting, sleeping, and connection!
Let's break it down:
Breath: Are you really breathing? Are you ever mindful of your breath? Do you practice deep breathing to regulate your nervous system? Is your breath shallow from stress?
Movement: Are you moving? Do you exercise, go for walks, or maybe dance in your underwear?
Eating: Are you eating? No, really, like are you remembering to eat? Are you consuming a balanced diet?
Hydration: Are you hydrating? Do you consume the recommended bottle of wine every night? Just kidding. Really though, are you hydrating your body with enough liquids to fuel your organs (they work really hard for you, ya know)? The recommended amount is 8 eight ounce glasses of water, tea, or any hydrating liquid found in your diet.
Rest: Are you getting quality rest? Are you allowing yourself to lounge, do nothing, and chill?
Sleep: Are you sleeping? Do you go to bed before midnight, stay off bright screens, and have a wind down routine to help you fall asleep?
Connection: Are you connecting? Do you connect with friends, family, loved ones and even pets? Do you make other human beings a priority in your life and practice laughter, affection, and gratitude with them?
By setting the foundation towards fulfilling those basic needs for yourself, you can create consistent rituals for self-care as you work your way up to luxurious facials, juice cleanses, and solo yoga retreats! The best way to truly heal, and work through a stressful or anxious life is by following this rule of thumb:
If the basics for self-care aren’t being met, then something will usually feel like it’s missing from your well-being, so be sure to start with the basics and work your way up to optimize your happiness.
ONWARD WITH BREATH
Humans, since we’re such wonderfully complex creatures, work best when tasks are broken down to small digestible bites, and that means even in our self-care routines! Research also shows that when we break down goals and attain them, we produce the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains, therefore making it easier to continue reaching further goals, isn’t that dope?
Please give me a pity laugh, thank you.
Dopamine acts as a motivator and gets stimulated when we achieve a goal, hence why it helps enhance our mood and create excitement around success. It's our body's own reward system and it's pretty freaking great! Low levels of dopamine are associated with self-doubt, poor focus and procrastination, which is why it’s even more important to break down your goals and celebrate every tiny victory.
Why not learn to hack your brain to positively reinforce your self-care practice? Now lets hack our biology through the foundation of breath, shall we?
Meeting the most fundamental basic need of self-care: breath
Think about it! Humans can survive without food for over three weeks and even a few days without water, but cut off their oxygen supply and they are left with only minutes. The act of breathing powers our existence, period!
The first rule of self-care is befriending your nervous system and understanding your body’s internal relaxation response, but this friendship can’t get off to the right start without understanding the very role of our breath.
Mindful breathing is the most underutilized tool we have and it’s honestly a superpower! Here’s why:
Right now, if you’re able, notice your chest rising and falling. Then take a moment to notice your breath, is it shallow or full? For many of us, it’s usually shallow and stress or anxiety will do that.
Now take a deep belly breath:
Place your hand over your abdomen. Inhale through your nose and into your belly. You should feel your belly move your hand upwards during the inhale. Make sure your belly is rising past your chest, then exhale fully and completely through your mouth, and as you exhale, tighten your belly as it deflates and pushes all the air out. If you're ready, repeat this process 10 times.
How do you feel? I hope the answer is: better or chill AF, either will do.
Practicing mindfulness over your breath can help you grow more in tune with your body, so you’ll be able to notice when you’re tense or when your breathing is shallow. This is a beautiful practice in showing up for yourself because breathing powers all of our major organ systems, which helps us feel better. If you can get into the habit of noticing your breath throughout the day, you can begin to catch moments of shallow breathing, and redirect them with nice deep breaths. When our breathing is shallow, we don’t get enough oxygen to keep our bodies properly regulated, thus leaving us fatigued and feeling all sorts of poo.
Here’s what just happened in your body after belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing:
Deep breathing activates our relaxation system and a big part of that system is this thingy called the Vagus Nerve, which also happens to be the longest cranial nerve that runs all throughout the body; it connects to the brain, ears, tongue, lungs, heart, liver, gut, and the list never ends.
Why is this nerve important? It helps regulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which plays a vital role in helping your body calm down after stressful experiences. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it aids in the body’s ability to properly rest, digest, and function by reducing blood pressure, strengthening the immune system, slowing down breathing, brightening mood and relieving anxiety. Just by practicing belly breathing, you will automatically put pressure on your vagus nerve every time your diaphragm expands, which will activate the nerve and kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear. This is a quick way to calm yourself down, boost your well-being, and even increase the alpha waves in your brain to further chill you out. Hell yes!
How easy is that?
Shallow breathing, often caused by anxiety and stress, causes poor parasympathetic function and doesn’t uphold it’s potential to stimulate the vagus nerve, and this cycle can ultimately lead to “low vagal tone,” which is often the overlooked culprit in chronic fatigue, digestive issues, and anxiety. It’s okay, though! You can increase your vagal tone by mindful breathing and other stimulating exercises; don't worry, I'll get to them! My goal is to make sure your vagus nerve is on fleek, and I wholeheartedly mean that, even more than me using the term “on fleek.” I’m trying to make this stuff cool, okay? Bare with me.
By practicing deep (belly or diaphragmatic) breathing, activating our vagus nerve, and easing the nervous system from our common states of anxious shock or tensity, we can become our own healers. We have this very power within us and it's completely at our disposal, so when you feel like you're minuscule and pointless, remember, you're kind of a big deal!
Here are three quick ways you can practice toning your vagus nerve:
- Slow, rhythmic, belly breathing
- Humming or chanting: OoOooOooOM
- Taking care of your gut’s microbiome by eating probiotic rich foods or supplements
(hyperlinked one that I highly recommend)
Deep breathing releases serotonin!
It’s seriously the coolest! Just in case you’re not in the know, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that basically dictates your greater mood while also stabilizing it. When we’re deficient in serotonin production, it leads to depression, anxiety, isolation, and even digestive issues. But when our serotonin is on point, we feel happy, optimistic, and significant. People often associate serotonin production in the brain, but actually, over 80% of it exists in your gut! Whaaaaaaat?
Yep, it's true.
When we practice mindful breathing, especially belly breathing, serotonin gets released into our bloodstream in a matter of several seconds. You literally have the power to give your body a party filled with feel good chemicals that affect your entire well-being! How cool is that? Are you geeking out about this as much as I am?
Now that you've invested in reading all the knowledge I've shared with you, it's your turn to begin setting the first layer of foundation on your self-care practice.
Here come some tools, so you can put all that you've learned into action!
Here are my favorite breathing techniques to calm the mind, body, and regulate the nervous system:
A. Find a comfortable position to sit or lay in, relaxing the body as best you can.
B. Place your hand over your abdomen. Inhale slowly through your nose and as far down into your belly as possible. You should feel your belly move your hand upwards during the inhale, and your belly should rise further than your chest.
C. Pause for a short moment as you hold your breath.
D. Take your time slowly exhaling fully and completely through the mouth, as your belly deflates until there is no air left inside.
*repeat this process 5-10 times every hour, or whenever you can throughout the day
Watch this video for more guidance
4 - 7 - 8 Breath:
A. Sit or lay comfortably, take a moment, and notice your breath.
B. Inhale through your nose and into the belly, expanding the diaphragm for 4 full counts.
C. Hold your breath for 7 counts.
D. Exhale completely for 8 counts, forcing the air out of the mouth making a "woosh" sound, as you bring your diaphragm back in.
* repeat for up to 3-5 minutes (set timer, if necessary)
Watch this video for more guidance!
Tense & Release:
A. Lay comfortably, take a moment, and notice your breath.
B. Slowly inhale through your nose until you completely filling up the lungs and belly.
B2. As you inhale, begin to tense, tighten, and clench your feet as hard as you can.
C. Exhale fully, emptying the lungs and belly completely, and relax your feet as you exhale.
D. Repeat this process moving up through the body: legs/calves, thighs, groin/buttocks, abdomen, lower back, hands (clench as fists), arms, shoulders (bring shoulders up towards ears to tense, then release), chest, neck, jaw, cheeks, eyes, head (base of skull).
E. After finishing the first round, inhale and tense the entire body from head to toe, and release.
* repeat cycle 5 times
Watch this video for more guidance!
Here are different ways you can begin a breathing practice for self-care:
Remember, small digestible bites until we can grow our process.
1. Practice one of the breathing techniques listed, preferably belly breathing if you're just starting out.
2. Practice mindful breathing in the morning while you're still laying in bed for 5 minutes.
3. Practice mindful breathing during your lunch break for a few minutes.
4. Practice mindful breathing while you're in bed ready to go to sleep for a few minutes.
5. Work up to mindful breathing morning, noon, and evening for a few minutes at a time.
6. Set alarms for yourself to remind you to breathe every hour, then practice mindful breathing for a few minutes every hour. The best thing about this is you can do it anywhere: desk, car, couch, walking, etc.
7. Practice mindful breathing while you're stuck in traffic or waiting in line somewhere, or even in the shower or bath!
Most importantly, be sure to reward yourself. Give yourself some credit, have a positive internal dialogue thanking yourself for showing up for your body, tell someone special and do a mini victory dance together, or treat yourself to a good lunch, smoothie, or that sexy little piece of chocolate! Whatever you choose, remember to celebrate every tiny victory.
Best of luck on your journey to a calmer, balanced, lovely you! You got this.