Stress. In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, it’s hard not to make it through the day without feeling the effects of this ubiquitous emotion. We tighten our shoulders, cringe up our eyes and shorten our breath without even realizing it, heightening the damage to our bodies that chronic stress ultimately brings.
But, we don’t have to remain a victim of the fight or flight response gone awry. We can make changes, fairly simple ones, to help us cope with the challenges of living in the modern world without succumbing to stress. Today, let’s look at the changes you can make with your breathing that may be of help.
- Attend to your breath in moments of stress.
Breathing is one of the quickest and easiest ways to counteract feelings of stress. People who consciously breathe from the gut are much less likely to be tense. Unfortunately, if deep breathing is not exactly normal for you, it can be difficult to achieve on a regular basis unless you practice.
Begin by trying to notice when you are most stressed and force yourself to stop and take three deep breaths before you do or think anything else. A deep breath for the purpose of this exercise consists of inhaling through your nose for the count of 3-5, holding the breath for the same count, and then exhaling the breath through the mouth for a count of 5-8. In other words, your exhalation should be longer than your inhalation.
Pay attention to your body as you take your three or more full breaths. Watch what happens inside without judging yourself. Just acknowledge and observe. For example, you may concentrate on relaxing your shoulders as you exhale the breath. You may feel a tenseness in your stomach when you inhale that seems to get better by the time you have completed the exercise.
- Organize your breathing practice.
To breathe as deeply as possible all the time and not just when you happen to think about it takes deliberate practice. Here are some ideas to help you make deeper breathing a part of your day-to-day routines.
- Begin each day with a two-minute meditation. Sit comfortably and practice the same deep breathing as above, paying particular attention to your breath. If a stray thought enters your mind, acknowledge it with a smile and then return to paying attention to your breath. When you are finished, place your hands on your chest and take a moment to listen to your thoughts for the day. What is the main goal you have for yourself that day? This goal can help center you for the remainder of your day and get you started off right.
- Assign specific times throughout your typical day in which to stop and consciously work on your breathing. Try to think of two to three high-stress times in a typical day. Perhaps consciously breathing before lunch will help you de-stress before you eat. If the last half hour of work is always challenging for you, a breathing break to help you push through may be helpful. Taking a moment to collect yourself in your driveway before you step back into your house at the end of the day will get you ready to truly enjoy your family.
- End each day with a final meditation. This time, when you place your hands on your chest and breathe, think about what you are thankful for from the day. What were your wins? Such positive thoughts will help you claim the peaceful rest you deserve.
- The more often you consciously take deep breaths, the sooner this kind of breathing will become a more subconscious part of your life.
- Breathe before you speak.
Often, stressful situations involve our interactions with other people. Taking a moment to breathe deeply before you speak can help you prevent escalating already stressful situations with words you might not have said in calmer times. When we breathe deeply, we center ourselves, which means we are closer to being in touch with our core selves and values when we have been breathing deeply than when we use those shallow, quick breaths that promote anxiety and stress.
- DON’T suck it in.
If you tend to hold your stomach in to improve your appearance, as many people do, you aren’t doing your breathing any favors. The next time you feel tempted to pull in your gut, ask yourself if the increase in stress inside your body is really worth it.
- DO stand and sit straight.
Poor posture squeezes your diaphragm and reduces your ability to breathe deeply. When you sit and stand with proper posture, you open up the rib cage and allow the diaphragm to fully expand and contract. Your breathing automatically improves with better posture. Try it now. Slouch and breathe. Then, straighten and breathe. Can’t you feel the difference?
We humans tend to take the path of least resistance. So, it’s understandable that breathing, which happens without us having to think about it, takes a back seat to the day’s worry and cares. But, attending to your breathing before you tackle your stressors actually will reap huge rewards for your health and stress management.
And the best news of all is that this practice doesn’t cost you anything except your own effort and dedication to a better you.
Betsy’s Note: This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent any disease. Consult your healthcare provider.