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Finding Balance

Give Your Brain a Break with Mindful Breathing

On days when you’re feeling a little scattered, have you ever joked to others that you have the attention span of a goldfish?

As it turns out, that could be true.

While a goldfish is believed to have an attention span of about 9 seconds, research by Microsoft reveals that the average human being’s attention span is now down to 8 seconds, versus an average of 12 seconds two decades ago.

Our low attention spans are thought to be linked to a recently recognized disorder called attention deficit trait (ADT). Marked by distractibility, impatience, and agitation, particularly in the workplace, ADT prevents people from setting priorities, making intelligent decisions, and managing their time.

Attention span of a goldfish

Drinking from a Fire Hydrant

Information overload is a significant societal problem and is thought to cause ADT and reduced attention spans. The amount of content disseminated in today’s hyper-connected world is simply overwhelming. 

To quote Mitch Kapor, founder of the company that created the Lotus 1-2-3 software application, “Getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”

Trying to process so much information can dramatically increase stress and anxiety. Sources estimate that the average person’s brain now makes as many as 35,000 decisions every day. 

No wonder our brains are tired!

Exercises to Give Your Brain a Break

Mindful breathing woman on couch

Most of us have been taught since childhood to take slow, deep breaths to help calm ourselves down. But science has only recently begun to understand why that works.

In 2016, researchers discovered that a brainstem neural circuit is primary in the breathing-brain control connection. The circuit is part of what has become known as the brain’s “breathing pacemaker” that can be adjusted through altered breathing rhythm.

Stress affects our brain function over time because our thoughts and behaviors shape our brains. We’ve known that meditation can keep brains sharp as we age for some time now, and research suggests that the benefit comes from the mindful breathing involved in meditation.

With that in mind, here are 6 mindful breathing exercises that everyone, especially those over 50, should be doing regularly to give your brain a break. 

Morning Cleanse

Some people find it beneficial to repeat this several times; others, only once. Over time you’ll figure out what works best for you.

  • While standing, bend forward, letting your head hang. Dangle your arms close to the floor. 
  • Moving slowly, return to the standing position, inhaling slowly and deeply. Life your head last.
  • Hold your breath in the standing position for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. 

Three Mindful Breaths

  • Take a slow, gentle inhale through your nose, paying attention to the sensation of air moving through your nostrils. 
  • Once your chest and abdomen are filled, begin a gentle exhale through your nose, paying attention to the sensation in your nostrils as air passes through.
  • Rest a moment, then repeat two more times.

Breathe into Tension

Mindful breathing self reflection

For this one, you’ll need to lie down on your back. After settling in comfortably (use pillows or cushions as required), close your eyes and take a few slow, steady grounding breaths.

  • Focus on a specific part of your body that feels tense or tight. 
  • Inhale deeply and slowly, imaging that a radiant white light is entering your body through your nostrils and moving toward the spot you are focused on.
  • Hold the light on the trouble spot for a second and then exhale slowly, envisioning your tension is being released. 
  • Repeat until the discomfort or tightness in that particular spot has been reduced or eliminated.
  • If you have more than one area of tension or discomfort, repeat the exercise while focused on that specific spot.
  • When finished, hold your entire body in your awareness, noticing what is present and what has changed. 

Belly Breathing

This is another that is best done while lying on your back. Many people choose to practice belly breathing in bed.

  • Resting on your back, put one hand flat on your chest and the other flat on your belly.
  • As you take a few normal breaths, observe which part of your body is rising and falling as you breathe – first the chest, then the belly.
  • Explore deepening your breath by softening your belly as you inhale. Let most of the movement take place in your belly, not your chest.
  • Allow your breath to return to its natural depth and pace.
  • Repeat a couple of times.

Over time, try to gradually increase the amount of time spent on the belly breathing exercise to several minutes per session.

Whole Body Breathing

Settle into a comfortable, upright sitting position and relax for a couple of seconds.

  • Slowly take in a full breath, exhaling just as slowly. Allow the breath to move your body as you breathe in and out.
  • There’s no need to control the breath. Just allow it. As you breathe in, imagine that your whole body is breathing in, and as you breathe out, imagine your whole body breathing out.
  • Breathe in again, this time taking about five seconds to fill your whole body with breath, and then breathe out slowly over about five seconds. 
  • Continue breathing this way for a few breaths.

If you find yourself feeling scattered or distracted at this point, repeat the exercise.

Affectionate Breathing

Close your eyes and focus on the sensation of your body breathing. 

  • Take a few slow breaths, noticing how your chest rises and falls.
  • With each exhalation, speak out loud a few words of gratitude for your existence. (Choose any phrase that feels good to you – that you are grateful for family, the warmth and safety of your home, the clothes you wear, the food you eat, etc.)
  • Repeat the phrase of gratitude on the exhales for your next three or four breaths.
  • Now breathe in the feeling of gratitude for your existence – for breathing, for this experience, for life, etc.
  • Repeat the phrase of gratitude on the inhale for at least several breaths or as long as you wish. 

Read Next: 

Constantly Distracted? Consider Mindfulness.

Squash Your Self-Critic with Meditation. Increase Mindfulness and Gratitude.

A Beginner’s Guide to the MIND Diet

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