Why do we focus so much attention on the importance of the breath when we talk about mindfulness, particularly during mindfulness meditation? The answer is simple. The breath helps to regulate stress. To understand how this works, consider that our bodies and minds are subject to the opposing forces of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stress occurs in our bodies when a stressor triggers the sympathetic nervous system to produce immediate changes in our bodies via the "fight or flight response." Our heart beats faster, our ability to concentrate is narrowed, we become stronger. In other words, we are "aroused" in a way that enables us to react to the particular stressor that is producing a fear response. We stay in this state of arousal until our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in so that we can return to our normal, resting state.
Being in a heightened state of arousal for prolonged periods is not good for us. Not only does it produce long-term, negative changes in the body, but it affects our ability to regulate our emotions and our cognitive resources (such as our ability to concentrate and our memory). Constant work stress, family stress, and stress resulting from other sources wears on us.
That's where mindfulness and the breath come in. Mindfulness allows us to manage stress by bringing the parasympathetic nervous system back into action. In the short-term, mindfulness can improve our memory and ability to concentrate, help us to have stronger psychological immune systems, and increase our ability to relax.
To engage in mindfulness, begin by taking a breath. Make sure it is a breath that goes deep into your abdomen. Attend to the breath. If your focus begins to shift, simply return it back to your breath. Continue to take deep breaths. These breaths interrupt the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. They cause you to slow down. Your heart rate reduces and you begin to feel more relaxed. Stress chemical levels in your body drop.
Our "fight or flight" responses don't tend to occur in response to life-threatening situations. Most of the time, these responses are generated by life's daily experiences--having to give a talk, teach a class, attend a meeting, engage in an argument with a friend, get negative feedback from a boss, etc. We have lots of opportunities to break the response by being mindful. Next time, remember to pause, take a deep breath, and keep breathing through your experience. Your mind and body will both be better off.