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Just Breathe...

Tame Your Stress With Just Your Breath



The burden of stress seems to be weighing heavier these days than ever before. The pressure is always on.  The demands seem endless. The rewards often feel slight. And the toll on our bodies is palpable. Whether it's the impossible expectations in the workplace, the strain of financial obligations, or the complexities of personal relationships, our bodies are responding to more stress and less rest in some of the most profound ways. But there exists an option that can effectively pull you out of chaos and into a place of complete calm. It’s simple. Just breathe.



FIRST, THE PHYSIOLOGY...


When life throws a challenge your way, it’s like your brain hits the panic button and your body kicks into high gear, activating the sympathetic nervous system aka the "fight or flight" response. Without even much of a thought (that part of the brain actually gets suppressed), the body starts releasing hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, into the bloodstream. Heart rate goes up. Digestion slows down (it’s not important when your safety is at risk).  And your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow.  Your body basically does everything it knows it needs to do to keep you alive.  It’s quite the phenomenal process.


When the threat dissipates, the parasympathetic nervous system, aka the "rest and digest" response, steps in and works to counterbalance that heightened state. Ideally, your body has no problem occasionally going from an activated to a balanced state.  However, when stress is chronic and/or prolonged, this regulatory mechanism may struggle to regain control, leading to excessive feelings of tension and overwhelm as well as other mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. 



THE POWER OF YOUR BREATH


Of all the physiological responses triggered by stress, there is just one that remains within our control: our breath. Breathing is unique in its ability to bridge the gap between the conscious and the autonomic nervous system. By deliberately altering our breathing patterns, we can influence our physiological state and promote a sense of calm.



BREATHING AS AN INTERVENTION


Think of breathing as the perfect way to interrupt the stress response. The act of focused breathing serves as a powerful intervention during times of heightened stress or anxiety. By directing attention to the breath, you can shift your focus away from the disruptive thoughts, but you also send a signal to your autonomic nervous system that you are safe. Intentionally taking deeper, fuller breaths alone can disrupt the cycle of escalating tension.


Engaging in deep, diaphragmatic or belly breathing encourages the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing the intensity of the stress response. This type of breathing involves inhaling deeply through the nose, allowing the diaphragm to fully expand, and exhaling slowly through the mouth. The deliberate elongation of the exhalation phase is particularly effective in calming the nervous system.



OTHER SIMPLE BREATHING TECHNIQUES TO TRY:


Resonant Breathing: Inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of six. Repeat this pattern five times. This technique only takes a minute. Breathing at this rate helps maximize heart rate variability, reduce stress and, when combined with other practices, may help reduce depression, according to this study.


Box Breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Repeat this pattern several times, focusing on the rhythmic nature of the breath.


4-7-8 Breathing: Inhale quietly through the nose for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven, and exhale audibly through the mouth for a count of eight. This technique encourages a longer exhalation, promoting relaxation. Repeat this pattern for 1 - 5 minutes.


Mindful Breathing: Take a moment to simply observe the natural rhythm of your breath without attempting to modify it. You might even try putting one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly.  

Notice the sensations and patterns of the breath as it enters and leaves the body, anchoring your awareness in the present moment. Do this for as long as you need.



BEYOND IMMEDIATE INTERRUPTION


While breathing techniques offer immediate relief during moments of stress or anxiety, establishing a regular breathing practice can yield long-term benefits by building resilience. In effect, a regular and intentional practice, during times of parasympathetic nervous system activation can help prepare you for the times of sympathetic nervous activation. Much like engaging in weight training to strengthen muscles, incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine can enhance your resilience and prepare you to move through stressful situations with greater ease.


Suggestions for a Regular Breathing Practice:


  • Morning Ritual: Begin each day with a brief breathing exercise. Before even getting out of bed, take five deep breaths, focusing on filling your belly with each inhalation and releasing tension with each exhale. This practice establishes a foundation of resilience to carry you through the day.


  • Midday Pause: Make it a habit to take regular breaks and tune into your breath. Set aside a few moments to practice mindful breathing, stepping away from the chaos of daily life and finding a few moments of calm.


  • Evening Wind-Down: Wind down before bed with a relaxation-focused breathing exercise. Incorporate techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery to promote deep relaxation and prepare your body for restorative sleep.


It’s easy to dismiss the power of something so simple, but know that, just by breathing with intention, you are letting your body know that it is safe and that it can relax. Also remember that, by integrating a breathing practice into your life now, you are helping your brain learn to better manage stress and develop the resilience you will inevitably need in the future. This is not about avoiding stress altogether because that, as you know, is impossible. Instead, it’s about improving your ability, when it does show up, to move through it with strength and grace.



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