In Case of Emergency, Breathe!

"As the power of the sun holds all the planets, so the power of the breath holds every organ."
Hazrat Inayat Khan
When we describe something as "breathtaking" we mean that it is awesome or exciting. It takes your breath away as it sweeps you out of your normal state of being. The breathtaking thing or event demands your attention. The breath is not so much taken as interrupted as you inhale rapidly.

When startled, we also quickly suck in breath and sharply focus attention on the unexpected thing or event. At the same time, our muscles tense as if we are preparing to fight or flee. So whether something is startling or breathtakingly beautiful, our bodies respond in a similar way with muscle contraction, narrowed mental focus, and increased respiration.

These changes are helpful in allowing us to avoid danger or to enjoy something wonderful. Viewing a great work of art we don’t mind having our breath taken away. We want to see it as clearly as possible and not be distracted. Similarly, in trying to avoiding a traffic accident, we want to be fully alert and activated. We can be thankful that we have these activation responses. Unfortunately, we can become chronically activated by repetitive events in life that we perceive as threatening.

When we habitually respond to people, places, and events as if they were dangerous, we develop persistent muscle tension and shallow restricted breathing. It doesn’t matter if the danger is real. Our thought that we are at risk is all it takes to create an anxiety response. That response also includes increased heart rate and blood pressure, perspiration, blood flow to the extremities and away from digestion, and numerous other physiological changes. We want these to happen in an emergency, but if they persist, we risk wearing out our system – and not enjoying life.

It is difficult to voluntarily slow your heart rate or lower your blood pressure just by thinking about it (though not impossible). It is much easier to modify your breathing. Slow and relaxed breathing is an all clear signal to your body. When you calm your breathing, your muscles relax, your heart rate returns to normal and the whole physiological alert system stands down.


When you find yourself tense or anxious, practice calming yourself by modifying your breathing.

Take a deep breath. Inhale fully and hold it a moment. Then exhale. If circumstances permit, this can be an audible sigh. Or exhale silently as if you were sighing. Let go of the breath as if you were releasing your grip on a heavy weight. Just let it drop.

Tell yourself to "Relax and breathe."

After you have exhaled, pause for a moment and wait for the need to inhale to form. Don’t resist the inhalation, but don’t rush it. It will come inevitably. Ocean waves on the shore flow in and back in their own time. It doesn’t help to push them. So with your breath allow it to rise and fall without pushing. Just let the flow of the breath flow over and around you.

As you inhale, allow your abdomen to participate. When tense, we breathe up in our chest. When relaxed, breathing is more in the belly. It may be helpful to put your hand on your stomach to feel that your belly is moving when you breathe. When your abdomen rises and falls with the breath, it means your diaphragm is relaxing. This allows full expansion of your lungs.

When you feel nervous, angry, or impatient, take a few moments to practice this more relaxed breathing. See if you can reinterpret your tension as excitement. Tell yourself to relax and breathe. Form some constructive, positive thoughts about your situation.

Some things are beyond our conscious control, but we can control our breathing and we can direct our thoughts. With these, and practice, we can learn to transform life experiences and expand not only our lungs, but our capacity for joy.

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© 1998-2002 Tom Barrett