How to Use Your Breath as an Emotion Barometer

August 14, 2015    BY Rolf Sovik

The pain of negative emotions—our sorrows, anxieties, jealousies, anger—is as real as physical pain. Although we tend to our emotional pain just as naturally as we tend to a badly sprained ankle or an infected tooth, oftentimes emotional pain can be difficult to alleviate. During periods of anxiety, for example, it may be hard to know what we are anxious about; anger frequently has more to do with defending our turf than with the focus of our fury; and sadness over a lost relationship can easily be confused with bitterness or thirst for a new partner. If we want to address emotional pain we must learn to see ourselves clearly.

Relieving emotional pain is more difficult when we react defensively. The two common methods for dealing with this kind of pain—suppressing it or projecting it onto the world around us—offer only temporary relief. Suppression is the effort to exclude unpleasant thoughts and feelings from awareness (trying not to think about them), but they simply crop up again when we are not guarding against them. Projection is attributing the cause of our feelings to someone or something outside ourselves—hurling a golf club after a poor shot, for example. By projecting anger onto the club we separate ourselves momentarily from the frustration of having made a bad shot, but it doesn’t resolve anything.

Relieving emotional pain is more difficult when we react defensively.

As painful as negative emotions are, they offer an opportunity to delve beneath the surface of the mind and examine areas of our life we normally avoid. And in so doing we learn to see ourselves clearly and resolve our negative emotions at their source. But when we are driven by defensive reactions or are overwhelmed by the unpleasantness of our emotions, we lose our perspective. Yoga offers a practical alternative: the opportunity to manage the pain associated with negative emotions by becoming more aware of how we are breathing. Breath awareness can help us reduce our defensiveness and address the sources of emotional pain. Let’s see how it works.

Emotions and the Breath

Negative emotions have an immediate effect on breathing. Do you remember the way your breathing changed when you last lost your temper, were startled by a loud sound, or felt overwhelmed? As we focus on managing a disturbing event, deeper, more abrupt, or more rapid breaths shift the balance of energy within the body. This momentarily heightens our attention level, preparing us to take action or allowing us to vent emotional energy.

Breathing changes like these have been recognized by Western science for many decades. For example, a study titled “Influence of Emotions on Breathing” was published in 1916 in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In it, Annette Felecky illustrated how strong emotion alters many of the most important characteristics of normal breathing. She noted that, depending on the emotion, we may breathe faster, sigh, gasp, or even stop breathing altogether. In 1986 Italian researchers suggested that even preconscious emotions (emotions that have not fully manifested or have been suppressed) may have similar influences on one’s respiratory style.

The converse of these observations—the knowledge that each of us can influence our emotional reactions through breath awareness and voluntary changes in breathing—is much less widespread. For the most part, work in this area has been limited to the study of anxiety disorders, hyperventilation, and a few other mental health problems. Medical texts on breathing rarely focus on voluntary awareness of the breath, and even among trained yoga students, few of us automatically turn to our breathing when we are in emotional pain. The admonition to “take a few deep breaths” when we are upset is still just a bit of folk medicine.

Awareness of the Breath

When breathing is affected by emotion it usually takes place at the edge of awareness. But if we are going to make use of the breath at times of emotional distress we need to learn to bring it easily to our awareness. This can be done by making the cleansing and nourishing sensations of breathing a familiar reference point. Daily practice is the key: it gives us the opportunity to observe relaxed breathing and to bring the interactions between breathing and emotion into view, much in the way that a laboratory environment amplifies the clarity with which experimental effects can be observed.

When breathing is affected by emotion it usually takes place at the edge of awareness.

In relaxed breath awareness the breath flows with satisfying ease. It courses in and out of the lungs in an environment of plenitude; the supply seems limitless. Our identity as a breathing being is secure—the opposite of the feelings we experience when we are under emotional stress.

Breath awareness yields rich information about the conditions of the body and mind. As we watch the breath we not only perceive the quiet rhythm of exhalation and inhalation, we also sense the barriers and comfort zones that have been established within the body: a subtle tightness that collapses the chest wall; a general sense of muscle restriction relieved only by deep, throbbing sighs; or, conversely, the comfort of a relaxed abdomen. We feel the pervading desire of every part of the body to breathe. And we sense the mind relaxing or tensing in concert with the breath.

Practicing Breath Awareness

Although the mechanics of relaxed breathing differ depending upon the posture of your body, many of the basic characteristics of relaxed breathing are independent of body posture. Practice breath awareness in a sitting pose or lying on your back, following these instructions:

  • Close your eyes. Relax your abdomen, your back, and the sides of your rib cage. Feel each exhalation and inhalation, and experience the sensations of cleansing and nourishing with each breath.
  • Recognize that no single breath needs to be perfect; another soon follows to correct any sense of shortness of breath.
  • Let your breath become deep and smooth—flowing without pause.
  • Observe that once your breathing is smooth and unbroken, it cannot be easily disturbed. The pressure of thoughts and emotions on the breath is reduced.
  • Sense the flow of time. You are anchored in the present, not chasing after time or dashing ahead of it.
  • Notice that as you attend to the breath you assume a more quiet, watchful role—you become an inner observer.

Continue watching your breath for five to ten minutes, observing the breath as if your whole body breathes.

Breath Awareness in Action

In the midst of an emotional reaction, breathing feels radically different than it does during quiet periods of breath awareness. A burst of energy activates muscles in the chest wall and dramatically increases the speed and depth of breathing, which then becomes restricted, uneven, or jerky.

In the midst of an emotional reaction, breathing feels radically different than it does during quiet periods of breath awareness.

As a result of daily practice, however, you will find that breath awareness gives you the opportunity to willfully restore a more normal breathing style. This can reduce the feelings of defensiveness that accompany distorted breathing patterns, and quiet the impulse either to act out or to suppress a negative emotion without considering the consequences. Here are strategies for addressing three common sources of emotional distress: anger, anxiety, and sadness.

Anger

Treat anger with care. It often signals an underlying hurt or need, but it may also be simply a convenient way to get what you want. You may be a hot reactor who angers easily, or a cool reactor whose anger rarely reaches a boil. Your anger may manifest as impatience or it may burst out in rage, but whatever form they take, angry outbursts of all kinds can be embarrassingly ineffective, and quite draining besides.

Yoga offers a technique that can help you manage the explosiveness of anger and provide you with valuable time in which to process the situation without losing control. The method is to feel the breath flowing in the nostrils. Try it now. Feel the breath flowing in the nostrils for just a minute or two and you will sense a centering process taking place within you. When you are angry, focusing in this way can give you time to gain a clearer perspective on the events that are unfolding around you. So learn to shift your attention to the breath in the nostrils when your anger is building. It will help you analyze the source of the disturbance, weigh the pros and cons of unleashing your anger, and gain enough distance to choose an appropriate reaction.

Acute Anxiety

Anxiety is always about the future: we feel anxious because we perceive danger lurking ahead. When anxiety becomes overwhelming it leads to a sense of powerlessness. What can we do when we are unnerved by anxiety?

A good strategy is to shift to breath awareness as often as possible—it will begin to calm your agitation and the sense that you have lost control. Lie down and watch the breath six to eight times a day. Take five minutes in your chair to close your eyes and watch your breath. Walk around the block, watching your breath. Let the sensations of the exhalation and inhalation keep you relaxed and in the present so that you can think and act clearly and decisively.

Sadness and Depression

Sadness is the sense of loss; depression is a shutting down of emotional responses when loss seems overwhelming. In either case, the outward appearance of inactivity and inertia that often characterizes these two states is deceptive—the mind is active, turning events around and around in an effort to accept them. This affects the breath by creating short pauses—moments in which we are lost in thought, moments during which the thread of energy we so need in order to feel whole is subtly broken. You will feel better if you use breath awareness to maintain a constant flow of breathing. Take regular practice sessions. Let sighs or deep, heaving breaths alert you to the fact that your breathing has been interrupted. Do not fight with yourself. Encourage the breath to flow without pause so that you can release fatigue and sorrow and restore energy.

In the End

The interaction between emotions and breathing is usually involuntary and we do not pay much attention to it. Yet the habit of attending to the breath can reduce energy loss and help us better manage our emotions. The key is to develop a daily routine of breath awareness that we can rely on for balance when distressing events disturb us. Practice ten minutes of relaxed breathing once or twice daily—then use the tips listed in this article to tailor your breathing skills to whatever situation you encounter.

Breathing Strategies for Banishing Pain

Source of Distress:  Anger 
Strategy: As your anger builds, be aware of the breath flowing in the nostrils.

Source of Distress: Acute Anxiety
Strategy: Practice relaxed breath awareness throughout the day (6–8 times a day, or even hourly).                       

Source of Distress: Sadness                                  
Strategy: Breathe in an unbroken flow and let the breath become deep and relaxed; above all, prevent pauses.

Source of Distress: Physical Pain                                      
Strategy: Deepen the breath; then use your breathing to join the pain rather than fighting with it.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>

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