The next time you feel anxious or frustrated, consider your breathing. Your breaths are probably short and shallow, right? This is a common stress response as the body puts itself into fight-or-flight mode. The reality is, however, that few of us rarely take more than a couple deep breaths throughout the day, whether or not we’re stressed—and it’s taking a toll on our health.
In news that will surprise no one: We have a serious stress problem in our society. Whether said stress comes from bills, work, family, sleep deprivation, nutrient deficiencies or personal thought patterns, most of us feel attacked by stress on multiple levels every single day. Our body deals with all of these stressors in a similar way: It releases stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn cause a rapid heartbeat, tightened muscles, dilated pupils, and (you guessed it) shallow breathing. This response is biologically intended to get us through short, high-stress situations, but most of us today are dealing with high-stress environments on a long-term basis. It is this long-term basis that leads to chronically high stress hormone levels, which are linked to pretty serious long-term health issues (think cardiovascular disease, insomnia, hypertension [high blood pressure], indigestion, increased infections and autoimmune disease) and emotional issues (depression, anxiety).
So. How, exactly, do we manage this stress? Sure, a hot bath can do the trick, but what if you are at work? One obvious (and ideal!) answer is for us all to focus on lowering the sources of stresses in our respective lives by adopting a lifestyle that nurtures physical and emotional health, but even that wouldn’t eliminate stress altogether. The best bet (in our opinion) of counteracting stress we can’t avoid? A couple of deep breaths.
Deep breathing exercises can reduce your body’s stress response, which can counteract the long-term effects of high stress hormones and help you manage negative emotions and even physical pain. And the best part is that you can do these exercises anywhere, anytime. (No bubble bath required.)
Now, before we get into how this works, let’s take a look at why this works—i.e. what happens to your body when you practice intentional deep breathing.
1. Your muscles relax. Deep breathing helps you release physical tension, and increases blood flow to the muscles. (Bonus: Physical stamina also increases as a result.)
2. Your blood pressure lowers. As your muscles let go of tension, your blood vessels dilate and your blood pressure can return to a normal level.
3. Endorphins are released. The release of feel-good brain chemicals (like dopamine) is triggered by deep breathing. This will stimulate positive emotions, and can even provide some pain relief.
4. Energy and concentration increases. When you breathe deeply, every cell in your body is immediately nourished with the oxygen it needs—including all of your brain cells. (Another bonus: This can increase mental concentration and stamina.)
5. Detox processes improve naturally. The body’s lymph system helps move and release toxins, and deep breathing stimulates this vital process.
…Good stuff, right? Here’s how to do it.
1. Sit down or lie down in a quiet place. Get comfortable, and try to give yourself at least five undistracted minutes. Close your eyes if you can.
2. Inhale slowly and deeply (count to five if it helps). Focus on the air flowing deep into your abdomen, not just your chest.
3. Exhale slowly and deeply. Focus on completely emptying your lungs.
4. With each exhale, focus on releasing tension from your body. Focus on one area at a time. Start with the top of your head. Then move downward to your face, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, back, stomach, hips, legs, ankles and feet. Continue to breathe slowly in and out, releasing tension from each area of the body. Focus on your breath and relaxing your body.
5. Let your mind take a break from distractions. Thoughts will occur in your mind, but let them float in and out, without straining to hold on to any of them.
Deep breathing exercises can be done throughout the day as needed, but try to fit in at least one session a day to reap the stress relief benefits.
But wait, there’s more! A few final tips to consider.
- Deep breathing is something you can do throughout the day, even if you don’t have time to dedicate to a “session” of deep breathing. Simply be aware of your breathing throughout the day and work on breathing more deeply. Especially focus on making sure you exhale completely, which is something most of us don’t do.
- To help you focus on your breath, place your hand on your abdomen. You should notice an obvious rising and falling of your stomach while you breathe. If not, focus more on breathing into your abdomen and not just your chest.
- You can use relaxing music or white noise to enhance your deep breathing experience. Calming essential oils can help, too. Lavender, cedarwood, orange, and spruce can be particularly helpful.
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