Stress Reduction Series: Part 1 – Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is one of the staples in terms of stress reduction techniques used by therapists, yoga teachers, parents, and everyone in between.  It works wonders if you are having trouble falling asleep, are feeling panicky, or are unable to focus.

Breathing is the only bodily function that we can do both voluntarily and involuntarily.  The neat thing is, we can consciously use our breath to influence and regulate our (involuntary) sympathetic nervous system, which consists of our blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, digestion and more.  When we experience emotional stress, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated (our heart rate rises, our muscles tense, we sweat, and breath becomes rapid and shallow).  Overtime, a chronically elevated sympathetic nervous system can impact our health by leading to inflammation, high blood pressure, and muscle pain among many other things.  When we engage in slow, conscious deep breathing, we directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows for relaxation and reverses the bodily impact of the sympathetic nervous system.  Basically, when we use deep breathing, our body naturally relaxes and stress is relieved.

So what is the big deal?  It seems like deep breathing should be a common sense skill.  It’s just “breathing” right?  While it’s true that deep breathing is simple, most of us need some practice to actually get it right.

Here are some tips:

  • Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest and begin to take deep, slow breaths, making sure that the belly rises more than the chest each time. (Taking shallow, or quick breaths into the chest, which is what many of us do, is inefficient).
  • Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of 4, hold your breath at the top for a few counts (no more than 7). Imagine yourself taking in all the air out of the room.
  • Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of 8. As you breathe out, gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely exhale all remaining air from the lungs.
  • Some practitioners use counts of 4 on the inhale, 4 on the hold, and 4 on the exhale or another variation. The idea is, to make sure you are breathing as at a slow, relaxed pace so that you can really deepen your breath and expand your chest and belly.  In general, it’s good to aim for an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale.
  • Repeat this cycle 10 times

Deep breathing can be done anytime and anywhere.  A great way to start is doing it twice per day (in the morning and before going to sleep), and anytime you feel anxious, tense, or unable to focus.

More resources:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response

http://psychcentral.com/lib/learning-deep-breathing/

http://greatist.com/happiness/breathing-exercises-relax