he sound of a chime dings loudly, to tell me it’s time for my next breath in. I am lying on the floor, with one hand lightly on my chest, the other on my belly, trying to relearn how to breathe properly — for the sake of my mental health, more than anything.
For the first time in what feels like weeks, even months, a sense of calm floods over me. I realise how close I have been to burnout. I have become so rushed in my life that I even race through my breathing. And I’m not the only one. According to research the vast majority of us are breathing far too fast, taking in 12-16 hurried breaths per minute. We are doing something which should be second nature, completely wrong – and it could be seriously harming our mental and physical health. I, for one, have been feeling completely at the end of my tether in every way – I juggle motherhood with running my own business, am having major building work at home, and am constantly feeling overwhelmed by work.
So in a bid to bring myself back from the brink of my own burnout, I book in with Nahid de Belgeonne, aka ‘the nervous system whisperer’. Nahid is a coach in Somatic Movement (which connects the mind and body), and a breath and yoga practitioner. She specialises in chronic anxiety, stress and trauma issues as well as helping CEOs and high-flying creatives. But I must admit, I was sceptical about what a ‘breath coach’ could do for me.
On our pre-session phone call, Nahid told me that we all need to breathe much deeper and much slower, ideally five to seven breaths a minute during normal activities. Shallow, fast breathing can heighten anxiety, anger or fear, as you are activating the sympathetic nervous system. This is the branch of your nervous system which prepares you to move away from danger. When it’s not functioning well, you feel like you are on an emotional rollercoaster.
It’s no surprise that so many of us are feeling stressed and exhausted. On top of the worries of the cost-of-living crisis, political instability and now the upcoming pressure of Christmas, two-thirds of workers say the pandemic has worsened employee burnout, according to one study. Another found that more than half of all women in leadership positions say they feel burnt out. I know the feeling.
I feel instantly reassured by Nahid’s calming manner — but she was not always this way, she says. “I used to be very reactive and easily triggered, but breath work with movement has changed my life”. The way she describes her former self sounds eerily familiar to me.
I used to be very reactive and easily triggered, but breath work with movement has changed my life
“Due to modern lifestyles pretty much all of us are in nervous system dysregulation, and when we are in that state the normal functions of the nervous system like repair and restore don’t happen,” Nahid explains. “This means your body is not fully functioning, which can have huge health implications such as heart disease and fertility issues later on in life. Learning how to breathe properly will help the body counteract stress. The inhale sharpens your focus and the exhale relaxes the system.”
Led by Nahid, I start my session by slowing my breathing right down. I inhale and exhale to a count of six in and six out. I am learning how to do the magic number of five slow, health-giving breaths a minute.
The 6:6 breathing pattern has such an instant effect on the heart rate that it is taught to people with PTSD, Nahid tells me. Before long, I fall into step inhaling through my nose for six seconds and exhaling again through my nose for six. I make sure I breathe through my nose, which increases oxygen uptake to the body by 20 per cent — essential for every cell, organ and tissue. My fingers on my chest help me feel my chest and diaphragm, now also in sync, rising and falling like a perfect working accordion. After a while I’m not even counting any more.
“The things that would have soothed us as a baby are exactly the same things that soothe us now,” says Nahid.
And she’s right. Which is why, next up is some self-rocking. I am instructed to gently press my heels into the floor, and rock from my heels backwards and forwards all the way up the back of the head. Then in comes the breath too, subtly moving and breathing in unison. “Rocking your skeletal system rhythmically creates a whole host of clever responses in the autonomic nervous system,” says Nahid. “Your muscles and connective tissue let go of held tension.”
Since Nahid’s class, I am more conscious of my breath and slow it down when I start to get even remotely stressed. I’ve integrated a few five-minute sessions of breathwork into my day. It’s like I have a buffer between me and stress. Breathing, surprisngly, was the answer all along. How easy is that?