How often do you breathe? Only when your Apple watch reminds you? Never? While it might seem intuitive, breathing is imperative for your well-being — especially when it comes to stress.
And while some of us might have our own rituals for how we manage stress after the fact, breathing can help counter its effects during that spike in adrenaline. Inhaling and exhaling is something our bodies don’t have to think about — we just do it. But adding a dose of mindfulness to your breathing habits could really up the ante, especially in moments of stress.
“When you experience stress, whether it’s running late in the morning, getting into a car accident, having a fight with your partner, or receiving some difficult news, your body goes into the survival mode — the sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response — that allowed your ancestors to survive wild animal attacks,” says Morgan Balavage, a yoga teacher and wellness coach. “This is all very helpful — you get a burst of energy, your pain receptors decrease, and your body does everything it can to protect itself if you were, say, running away from a wild boar. But most likely it’s just going to deplete you and leave your body unable to fight the pathogens that can really hurt you,” she adds.
So, how do you counter the effects of fight or flight feelings? By breathwork. “If you can control your breath, you keep your body in its resting mode — the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest — while you process whatever event is attempting to cause you stress,” says Balavage. By simply paying attention to your breath (and learning to control it through breathwork), “you will save your energy, manage your relationships with peace, and stay aligned on your path without depleting yourself,” she adds.
If you can control your breath, you keep your body in its resting mode.
Proper Breathing ‘Form’
Just like in your go-to fitness class, form is ultra-important to breathwork. And, as it turns out, many of us don’t breathe properly. “Correct breathing is truly underappreciated as a health intervention today,” says Bart Wolbers, a health scientist and researcher at Nature Builds Health. “Human beings are meant to breathe through their nose 99.9 percent of the time. The only reason to breathe through your mouth is [when] you’re engaged in extremely intense exercise.”
According to Wolbers, mouth breathing can cause you even more stress since it has “similarities with hyperventilation and the stress and anxiety associated with that,” which is why he says nasal breathing is the solution. “The slower you breathe — and the more you breathe through your nose — the more CO2 [carbon dioxide] your body will retain. That CO2 is necessary to properly absorb oxygen in your cells,” he adds.
Breathing Techniques for Stress
With nasal breathing in mind, let’s cut to the chase and get you the tools you need to breathe through stressful situations. The good news? You can do these pretty much anywhere.
Box Breathing: The first breathing technique for stress is called box breathing. “A five-second box breathe technique entails inhaling for five seconds, pausing for five seconds, exhaling for five seconds, and pausing again for five seconds,” says Wolbers. “That type of breathing is deeply relaxing and undercuts any acute psychological stress response (a fight or flight situation). So, if you just got an email with some bad news, box breathing can immediately calm you down,” he adds, noting that this is the best — read: most simple — breathing technique for beginners.
Mindfulness Meditation: Paying attention to your breath through a technique called mindfulness meditation can also help wash away stress. “By focusing on your breath, you cannot only become deeply relaxed, but you can also gain insight into states of mind and emotions over time. With mindfulness, you learn that you are not your thoughts and emotions, and [you] learn to detach from them. Doing so gives you room to respond differently to a stressful situation, or when you are angry or anxious,” Wolbers says. “When focusing on your breath, you may think about still needing to feed the cat, the appointment you have this weekend with a friend, or how you haven’t slept that well. Whatever thoughts come up — and thoughts will come up because the mind is by nature creative — always return your focus to the breath.” Mindfulness meditation is all about being aware of what is here now, and you can do that “by focusing on our breath or an object in the room,” says Wolbers. “The more present you become, the calmer your breathing will get.”
Belly Breathing: If paying attention to your breath in a mindfulness meditation is too challenging, creating a visual through belly breathing might help — and it can certainly help ease the tension. To practice belly breathing, Balavage says to start by placing one hand on your belly and the other on your heartbeat, where it feels strongest. “Breath into your belly hand first, then your heartbeat hand,” she explains. “Exhale so your heartbeat hand descends first, then your belly hand. Exhale everything out when you think you’re empty, with a big puff and hold for a heartbeat or two in that emptiness.” As an add on, Balavage says an internal chant might also help bring you some inner peace. As you inhale, say to yourself, “I am,” as you exhale say, “peace,” or another calming word (such as calm) that resonates with you. Repeat this mantra two more times, or until you feel ready to come back to reality.
Diaphragmatic Breathing: Practicing diaphragmatic breathing is another way to help ease stress. According to Wolbers, many of us practice non-diaphragmatic breathing, which entails breathing through the chest and ribcage. “Chest-based breathing is associated with the fight and flight response [and] breathing too quickly,” he notes. “The diaphragm is a muscle located below the lungs in your belly. That diaphragmatic muscle allows you to breathe through your belly. With diaphragmatic breathing, your belly will extend to the sides and front when inhaling and pull back towards your spine when exhaling.” The key to diaphragmatic breathing is to go slow and visualize where you are breathing from. Inhale through your nose and imagine your breath expanding your belly and sides, then exhale through your nose and pull your stomach to your spine. “Both slower and lower — i.e. belly — breathing are necessary for relaxation,” notes Wolbers.
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