• Sarah E Davila

Small But Mighty: How Deep Breathing Can Effect Your Body

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

Whoever said you can’t buy happiness has obviously never purchased a puppy. Dog lover here. For you other dog lovers, here’s a pic of my current, giant ball of fur, Cooper. Yea, he’s pretty awesome!

Back in the early days of our marriage, my husband and I had two dogs. One was a Boxer named Tyson who was one of the leanest/strongest dogs I’ve ever seen. The other was a Boston terrier named Bosco, who was little, but man was he scrappy. Small but mighty, Bosco ran the show. He came into our lives a few years after Tyson and upon arrival in our home, he quickly took ownership of Tyson’s belongings, including his crate and bed.

I loved watching the dynamics between these two. Bosco definitely controlled the backyard shenanigans. One bark from Bosco was all it took and Tyson got to work, running back and forth, patrolling the yard for the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, Bosco just sat and observed, like a BOSS! This pretty much summed up their entire relationship. However, every once in a while, Bosco would cross the line and Tyson would “gently” remind him that his bark was bigger than his bite.

This “gentle” reminder was hilarious to watch. Tyson would throw his weight on top of Bosco and cross his front legs under Bosco’s chin securing the perfect choke hold just long enough for Bosco’s ego to appropriately deflate. Never have I ever seen a dog’s eyes get so wide. Bosco couldn’t do anything but stare at us and beg for help. All the while, there was Tyson giving us that look, “just a few more seconds.”

I have loved all of my dogs I have had throughout my life, but Bosco was my spirit animal. I too like to think that I am mighty. I like to think that I can Mad Dog right along with the best of them. I am, after all, a product of 90’s rap music. DMX, Tupac and Biggie were my homies. “Some things will never change” – Tupac Shakur. The reality, however, is that I am five foot nothing, wear a size 4 shoe and have chronic asthma and allergies. Just like Bosco, I am all bark and no bite.

Nonetheless, I have learned that in my family, my voice matters. I really can “bark” loudly when I’m feeling angry or stressed and it definitely rubs off on others pretty quickly. The problem is when I get loud, they get loud. When they get loud, I get louder. Before I know it, our conversation escalates quicker than one of Trump’s midnight tweets.

It’s all about modeling. Children will learn more from what you are than from what you teach. But that’s not new info is it? I know this. You know this. But, it still happens from time to time. So what’s the answer? A good choke hold of course. Kidding! There are actually many effective parenting skills that can prevent family conflict and discipline from escalating.

But what I want to talk about is that split second before the escalation occurs. That split second where your brain can still actually access problem solving strategies. This brief moment in time is where the real decision is made to breathe or not to breathe. Deep breathing can mean the difference between escalating or not.

Did you just roll your eyes? I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. Being told to take a deep breath when you’re upset can almost feel condescending. But it is a technique that has been around for centuries, and for good reason! Research shows that breathing patterns are physiologically connected to the regions of the brain that control our moods and emotions.

The famous fight, flight or freeze response occurs when the amygdala (an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe) takes over and shuts down the brain’s cortex in order to make a split second decision when faced with danger. The “amygdala hijack” is a term coined by Psychologist Daniel Goleman that perfectly depicts this process.

This sure does have it's advantage. Imagine for a second that you step out into the street and notice a bus coming straight for you. I sure hope in that situation your brain chooses to flee instead of working through problem solving steps. For you 90’s folks, do you remember that epic bus scene in Final Destination? EEK!

Did you know that our brains can have this same response to chronic stress and anxiety? I don’t know about you, but family conflict produces both stress and anxiety for me and I do not want to make split second decisions that even remotely resemble Tyson’s choke hold. Research has shown that deep breathing can prevent the amygdala hijack and allow our brain's cortex to continue to function properly. I know that if I am going to stop myself from “barking” at my kids then I need to FIRST take some deep breaths, THEN attempt to implement healthier parenting strategies.

I can’t tell you how many of my clients get this skill wrong when we first start out. Deep breathing comes from deep down in your stomach. Imagine your Grandpa asleep in his lazy boy after a Thanksgiving meal and try to remember the way his stomach would rise and fall with each breath. That is deep breathing!

The question is can you do that when you’re stressed, angry, or anxious? If your shoulders are tense and your chest is puffing out like a Boston terrier attempting to run the show, then you are doing it wrong. I suggest downloading a deep breathing app on your phone and practicing this skill on your own. There are many to choose from. And the next time you are faced with fear, stress or anxiety I hope you choose this small but mighty skill before your amygdala chooses for you.

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