Breathing to Calm Stress
Breathing consciously is one of the most powerful ways to calm the body’s stress response (sympathetic nervous system) and activate the body’s rest response (parasympathetic nervous system), powerfully changing the cascade of hormones and communication molecules flowing through your brain and body for the better. Try integrating the following breathing practices into your daily life and notice the effect on your mood and mental clarity.
If you have no time at all, try:
Observing Your Breath: Don’t change your breath in any way; simply observe your breath. Where is your breath going in your body? Feel your lungs expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Focus on the changing sensations as air moves through your nose and fills your chest and abdomen. You may mentally note, “inhaling,” as inhaling and, “exhaling,” as exhaling.
Belly Breathing: Place your hand on your abdomen and as you inhale let your belly expand, like the belly of a baby or a puppy dog. When we are stressed, we take short upper chest breaths. Breathing deeply into the belly tells the brain that we are safe, bringing blood to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the highest part of the brain. “Willpower pause” is the term researcher Kelly McGonigal uses to describe how two minutes of deep belly breathing shifts blood away from the reactive parts of the brain to the PFC, allowing us to respond with clarity and resilience during times of stress. Amazing!
Focusing on the Exhalation: Take a deep breath in through your nose and as you let it out through your mouth, focus on squeezing out every last sip. Notice the effort in the muscles between your ribs (called intercostal muscles). The amount of air you move out of your lungs determines the amount of air you can draw in.
If you have 3 minutes, try:
Counting Your Breath: This is a powerful anti-anxiety technique. Inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale through your mouth (like you were blowing out of a straw) for a count of 8. Repeat the processes three more times, maintaining the 4:7:8 ratio and notice the effect on your nervous system. Do four breath cycles at least twice a day.
If you have 5 – 10 minutes try:
Making your Breath Deeper and More Easeful with an Anchor: Sitting or lying down, scan your body for any areas of unnecessary tension and let the body soften. Bring your attention to your belly and invite your breath to be deeper and more easeful. At the bottom of each exhalation, silently whisper a word or phrase that makes you feel safe or peaceful. This word or phrase is an anchor for your attention. When your mind wanders, invite your attention back to your breath and your word. Keep inviting yourself back for 5-20 minutes. Researchers use the term “relaxation response” to describe the healing that occurs through this practice. In one study, participants who practiced for 10 -20 minutes once or twice per day demonstrated changes in the expression of genes related to immune function, energy metabolism, and inflammation. Relaxation literally changes the substance of your body!
Resting in Your Breath: Find a comfortable position lying down. Let the eyes close and the arms and legs rest heavy. Find your breath wherever you feel it most easily – belly, chest, or nose. Now, sense that you are “being breathed” by the universal life force. There is nothing you have to do, just enjoy being breathed. Inhaling to receive this nourishing life force and exhaling to let go. Allow yourself be carried by this mysterious life force, resting in the fundamental rhythm of nature to which you already belong.
By Kayleigh Vogel, Wellness & Positive Psychology Coach