Smile, breathe, and go slowly.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
When I’m stressed and need a quick way to calm down and get centered, I use breathing practices. After breathing deeply, I feel relaxed in mind and body, and can feel the physical effects immediately wash over me.
I also ask my clients to use breathing practices to help them with issues such as anxiety, stress or anger. One client used them at work to manage her stress. She felt constantly pressured, and noticed that her heart rate was often accelerated and her body was frequently tense. She began using breathing practices when she noticed herself becoming stressed, and was soon able to calm her body and still her mind. Another client had severe anxiety attacks that arose without warning and were extremely disruptive, as you can imagine. She was able to use breathing practices to stop her anxiety from building, and to circumvent a full anxiety attack. When we feel triggered by something that causes us anxiety or fear, we can use our breath to bring us back to the present moment, as well as to regulate our emotions and nervous system.
After using the practices for as little as one week, my clients consistently report positive results. Just the simple act of deep breathing can help us maintain a state of peacefulness and calm, and avoid being swept away by fear, stress or anxiety.
Here is a short list of symptoms that breathing practices are helpful for:
When we breathe deeply we increase the oxygen in our cells, and initiate a relaxation response. Taking deeper, slower breaths decelerates our metabolism and stress-response systems. In addition, it helps us to conserve energy and increase alertness. When we don’t breathe fully, we often experience fatigue, decreased memory, attention and concentration. Each time we breath deeply, we lower our blood pressure and cortisol levels, which in turn decreases stress and improves overall health.
While there are many helpful breathing practices and traditions, such as Pranayama, which is the practice of breath control used in yoga, I have found Dr. Woodson Merrell’s Power Breaths to be extremely beneficial and easy to practice. Dr. Merrell recommends that we take Power Breaths every hour or two, if possible. We may want to take them routinely at certain times during the day, such as when we wake up, when we have a break at work, or when we’re driving in commute traffic. We can also just use this breathing practice when we’re feeling pressured or stressed to bring us a sense of immediate relief and calm.
1. Inhale slowly to the count of four – with abdomen expanding, chest relaxed, listening to your breath.
2. Pause for one count.
3. Exhale slowly and completely to the count of six – with abdomen deflating, shoulders relaxed and engaged, listening to your breath.
4. Pause for one count.
5. Repeat four times.
Be sure to breathe with your abdomen, not your chest. You may want to imagine a balloon blowing up in your abdomen when you take a breath inward, and imagine a balloon deflating when you exhale. When you breathe with your abdomen, you use your diaphragm “to draw oxygen deeper into the lung cells and recruit muscles and neurotransmitters that significantly enhance effects,” says Dr. Merrell. Also try to sit up as straight as you can with your shoulders back to increase the amount of air your lungs can hold. When we don’t sit up straight and slouch our shoulders forward, we are only able to take shallow breaths, which don’t have the same health effects that full, deep breaths do.
Reference: Merrell, Woodson (2008). The Source: Unleash Your Natural Energy, Power Up Your Health, and Feel 10 Years Younger. New York: Free Press