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Breathing Is a Powerful Way to Regulate Emotions

One major challenge of recovering from addiction is regulating your emotions. Negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed are common triggers of cravings. If you’ve spent years using drugs or alcohol to cope with challenging emotions, then your reflex is to crave drugs and alcohol when challenging emotions arise. Other emotions like anger and irritability are also common and they may strain relationships, making you feel alienated when you most need to feel a sense of connection with others. In treatment, you learn a number of ways to regulate emotions, often by assessing your interpretation of events that cause them. Another powerful way to control your emotions is by controlling your breathing. Here’s why it works. 


Your breath is something you have control over.

If you’ve ever struggled with a short temper, a mood disorder, or anxiety, you know how difficult it is to control your emotions. Often, the more you try to suppress or avoid an emotion, the more powerful it becomes. Although cognitive behavioral therapy techniques of challenging distorted thinking are effective, they do take some practice and they can be hard to employ in the heat of the moment. For example, if you have a short temper, your quickly rising anger makes it very hard to identify the faulty assumption that’s causing your anger and find a more objective alternative. 


However, even in tense situations, most people can exert control over their breath. It’s one of the few unconscious functions that we can take conscious control over. It’s also simple to do. You don’t have to identify faulty assumptions and so on; you just remember to breathe.


Your breathing affects your autonomic nervous system.

Your autonomic nervous system is made of two subsystems that are always having a tug-o-war. Those are the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight-or-flight system, and the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest-and-digest system. When you’re feeling angry, anxious, or stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is winning. Your heart rate and breathing speed up, your muscles get tense, and your field of possibilities shrinks dramatically. This last feature is designed to keep you from thinking things over while a lion is running at you, but these days it mostly causes us to make stupid decisions under stress. 


When you take control of your breathing, slowing it down and emphasizing a long exhale, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This very quickly lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, and your perception of stress. Since you no longer feel like you’re in immediate danger, you can think about your situation more clearly and better employ other strategies for regulating your mood. 


Overcoming addiction is a complex process that involves therapy, healthy lifestyle changes, social connection, behavioral strategies and emotional regulation. At Tree House Recovery of Orange County, California, our holistic treatment program addresses the various aspects of addiction and helps men build better lives without drugs and alcohol. Call us at 855-202-2138 to learn more. 

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