Practical Peace: Breathe Deeply

Ann Spangler
Ann Spangler

Another practical way of easing your stress is to engage in deep breathing exercises. You don't have to be a Buddhist to recognize the benefits of breathing deeply, which can be explained by a basic understanding of physiology. Chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks into action automatically whenever you face or think you are facing an emergency. It releases adrenaline and other chemical messengers into your system, putting your body on high alert, preparing it for a fight or flight response. It's what caused my younger daughter, Luci, to jump with fright the other night when I leapt out and shouted "Aaaagh" at her just as she rounded the corner of the stairway (bad mommy!). The sympathetic nervous system is great for dealing with emergency situations, but it's terrible for dealing with long-term stress. A chronically activated sympathetic nervous system disrupts the brain, causing depression, insomnia, and fatigue.

By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system plays an opposite role. It takes over when the body is at rest. So when I looked in on Luci after she had gone to bed that night, I saw a young woman, who despite her earlier ordeal, was sleeping soundly while her body was quietly restoring itself. An activated parasympathetic nervous system can help your heart rate decrease, your muscles relax, and your lungs to take in more oxygen. Deep breathing helps to activate the parasympathetic system, thereby increasing your sense of calm and well-being.

Speaking of sleep, if you want to die young, make sure you don't get enough of it. Without the proper amount of sleep, we are at greater risk of major illnesses, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Even our obesity epidemic seems to result in part from a chronic lack of sleep. Studies show that most of us need at least seven hours of sleep. Eight or nine hours are even better. There may be a variety of reasons why we are trying to get by on less and less sleep, but surely one of them is that we are up late with our screens, Netflix binging or playing video games. Exposure to the light emitted by television and computer screens can make it difficult to fall asleep. Another reason for our lack of sleep may be that we are depending too much on ourselves and not enough on God to make our lives work as we think they should.


Originally published September 29, 2020.