Let’s face the reality of living in the 21st century – we’re stressed. We’re bombarded all day long with information, the demands of work and family, our phones, our kids, and our responsibilities. This is only amplified if you live in an urban environment with added traffic, congestion, and noise pollution.
Left untouched, this stress of modern life can do harm to both your body and brain.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat stress, and one of simplest ways is with your own breath.
If you’ve ever taken a large breath before a big meeting or maybe a few seconds before giving a speech, you know how deep breathing can calm you down. Breath has amazing power over our physiology. By learning some simple breathing exercises, you can learn to manage stress and even control it.
Let’s start with the awareness of your breath. How much do you really think about your breathing? If you’re like most people, probably not much. Most of us walk around pretty unaware of how we inhale and exhale.
Here’s a quick 15-second test to determine what kind of breather you are:
With your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your belly, take one deep breath – hold it for a second – and let it go. Do it one more time. On this second breath, notice which hand moved more when you breathed in? If your right hand (the top one) moved more than your left (the one on your belly) or if you felt your shoulders move up and down, then you’re most likely a chest breather.
Unfortunately, many of us breathe way too much from our chest and neck. Most of us aren’t even aware of it. I know I certainly wasn’t. But once I understood the mechanics of breathing, I started to pay closer attention. I then realized that I was a big-time chest breather. But the good news is that you can change it quite easily.
First off, what’s so bad with chest breathing? Well, here’s a short list:
1. Fight or Flight: Chest breathing triggers the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), which can cause serious health problems if chronically triggered.
2. Improper Muscle Activation: Utilizes improper breathing muscles not designed for breath (intercostals, chest, neck, and upper back), which can lead to overuse and compensation injuries.
3. Less Oxygen to Muscles: Not as efficient at transferring oxygen to blood when compared to diaphragmatic breathing.
The autonomic nervous system has 2 main systems – the sympathetic which is known as “fight or flight” and the parasympathetic, know as “rest and digest.” Most of us run around all day in a heightened fight-or-flight state (sympathetic system). While effective at allowing us to out-run a tiger or lion, increased time in a sympathetic state can create elevated and damaging stress on the body.
Deep breathing (one of the breathing exercises you’ll learn) triggers the parasympathetic system (rest and digest), allowing the body to recover properly and manage stress more effectively.1 There is a fascinating book on the topic of stress and breathing – Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is an entertaining, yet highly informative read on the whole subject of stress and it’s effect on human beings.
The main point that author Robert Sapolsky makes is that acute stress, that of short duration, like exercise or a challenging work project, is healthy. It’s actually what makes us stronger and smarter.
But the real issue is chronic stress – the type of stress that comes from your boss, that email from co-worker, traffic, noise pollution, etc. It’s prolonged time in that elevated sympathetic state that becomes problematic. It can exacerbate many modern illnesses, suppress the immune system, and create high blood pressure.2
The good news is you can manage your stress with simple breathing and relaxation techniques.3
Here are 3 effective and easy breathing techniques to help trigger the parasympathetic system and reduce stress levels.
Using the feedback of your hands, this technique brings awareness to how you are breathing. This is very similar to our test above where you place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. The focus in active belly breathing is on your left hand, or on your stomach.
Instructions: Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Take deep inhales, expanding your belly – use your diaphragm muscle which will push the stomach outwards, moving your left hand as your belly expands. Exhale deeply and let the belly return to normal. The right hand on your chest should remain still. Try for 10-15 cycles (one inhalation & exhalation is one cycle) of deep belly breaths.
This is one of my favorite breathing exercises, and it builds off what you learned in the belly breathing exercise. This exercise adds a little resistance (through gravity) to your breathing, helping your breathing muscles fire more effectively.
Instructions: Lying facedown on the ground, rest your forehead on top of your hands. Relax and take deep breaths into your mid-torso area. The idea with crocodile breathing is to try to expand the full 360 degrees of your lower torso (meaning your belly, back, and sides) with breath. You should feel your belly get full and wide on the ground as you breathe deeply. This ensures that you’re using your diaphragm and not your chest. Shoot for 3-5 minutes of crocodile breathing. Choose a relaxing song that lasts somewhere between that time, or set a timer so you can focus on your breathing instead of the clock.
Maybe the simplest but still highly effective technique is the cycled, counted breathing technique. Popular with a lot of mindfulness practices, you simply count the duration of each inhale and exhale, progressing the duration of each in a ladder format.
Instructions: Start with a simple 4-ladder breath exercise. It works like this. Start by taking an inhale for 1 second, hold for 1 second, and then exhale for 1 second. Then inhale for 2 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and exhale for 2 seconds. Continue up to 4 seconds, and then go back down to 1. Repeat this cycle for 2-3 minutes.
If you want to read more about breathing, check out: Why Don’t Zebras Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky
And of course, I want to know how any of these worked for you. Let me know below!