Holding her breath used to make her anxious. Today she counts to four on the inhale, holds for 12 easy counts, and exhales for 8. Her brain, used to puzzling over endless thoughts and fears, lets the breath take her into a pleasurable, deep body-awareness that is starting to become familiar. Weekly breath coaching with Intrinsic in Roaring Fork Neurology is training her to regulate her nervous system from the inside out.
The breath is a doorway to managing your nervous system, and how you breathe determines a lot about your mental health. This isn’t just about relaxation, it’s about how you handle the edges of breath and the chemical story your brain is dealing with as a result.
When you hold your breath, your brain pays attention. Try holding at the top of an inhale, then recover for a few breaths and compare it with holding after an exhale. Which one feels better? Most people prefer holding at the top. The bottom hold is harder because the brain isn’t worried about oxygen, it’s focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) build up in the blood. CO2 is the waste product of all metabolism in the body, and the only way to rid its accumulation in the blood is to exhale. When you can’t exhale any more, it starts building up again to the brain’s irritation.
If you have a low tolerance for this gas in your blood, you will breathe in a more shallow, rapid pattern to get rid of it. You will then have less oxygen to use for managing your mood, appetite, sleep, and focus on a cellular level. Your body’s systems will compete for energy.
If you are already in a stressed state, this means it will be harder for you to regain balance with a low CO2 tolerance. The double-edged sword here is that if you are living a stressful life, struggle with chronic pain or mental health challenges, your tolerance for CO2 will be innately lower than if you were regulated. This is simply because you’re operating in a more fight/flight dominant, or sympathetic, mode which tells the main systems in the body, including your breath, to move quickly and focus only on systems used in survival. In short: low CO2 tolerance can become a vicious circle. You’re stressed, so you breathe stressed. You breathe with stress, and you become more stressed.
The only way out is through the same doorway of breath that is revolving you around and around this stressful circle. Unlike the rest of your autonomic nervous system causing reactivity during stress, the breath can be controlled, and you can train yourself to have a higher CO2 tolerance. When you turn on the power of this Intrinsic Skill*, you have an incredible ally in managing your mental health.
You can train your threshold for CO2 first by learning basic breath tools for regulating your nervous system and then doing specially guided apnea, or breath-hold practices to expand your skill. This is a delicate edge. If you try it alone without support, you could be creating more anxiety and dangerous patterns in your nervous system. Because our brain’s love routines and form pathways to repeat actions that are practiced, with guidance, you’ll start using the breath to manage your state of mind and body without even thinking about it. The circle of stress creating stress switches to breath creating presence and calm.
Roaring Fork Neurology’s Dr. Brooke Allen understands the value of training the brain to breathe with ease from a higher CO2 tolerance. She has partnered with Intrinsic to provide breath training to her patients and the public in a new mind body space at her spa-like clinic in Willits. This partnership is enhancing the clinical care of those with MS, migraines, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and chronic pain with an empowering tool that is free, portable, and is customized with use. The breath is a singular advantage for those with the access to our training. Come learn more at a quarterly Intrinsic workshop, weekly class or private session with us.
*Intrinsic is owned by Brian and Emily Hightower. We disrupt limiting patterns then empower people in healing with evidence-based training in Intrinsic Skills like breath, nutrition, somatic movement, outdoor play, and sleep therapy. We work with Fire/EMS, the military, veterans, trauma recovery and athletes in our studios in downtown Carbondale, at Roaring Fork Neurology and at 4 Winds Farm.
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