When we are stressed or anxious, we tend to breath from the chest with short and shallow breaths, this in turn creates more tension in the body. We can directly calm our nervous systems and influence our stress response by firstly bringing awareness to the breath and then secondly, by modifying it through simple breathing techniques.
It does not take long to elicit a calming response in the body with correct breathing. Such techniques can easily be integrated into your day, especially during those high stress moments at work.
- sit in a comfortable and upright position
- close your eyes, relax your shoulders and jaw
- breath through your nose as you inhale and exhale
- do not try to modify the breath
- just observe how you are breathing (e.g. chest, belly, deep or shallow)
- continue for 2-3 minutes
When you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed, agitated, impatient, fearful etc. by bringing awareness to the breath in this way, the breath will naturally start to lengthen and deepen and stimulate a calming response. Once this breath awareness is established, then you can progress into practicing these other simple breathing exercises:
- sit comfortably
- begin to breathe through the nose
- take some deep breaths in and out
- then mentally count the length of your inhale e.g. 3 or 4 seconds
- exhale for the same amount of counts
- continue this for 2-3 minutes
If at any point the breath becomes forced or laboured, you might need to reduce the count. Likewise, if you feel super comfortable then gradually extend the length of the inhalations and exhalations. Eventually after some practice, as you have established the rhythm, you can drop the counting, but initially it is very important.
Extending the exhalation
The Equal Breath technique is a great preparatory practice for extending the exhalation. So after establishing equal breathing for a few minutes, you can practice this next technique.
When we lengthen the exhalation we influence the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which helps to decrease heart rate and blood pressure and prepares the body for relaxation, digesting and sleeping.
Whereas the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) does the opposite, heightening when we are stressed or doing physical activity. So by adjusting the length of the exhalation, we are shifting the emphasis to the PNS and therefore the relaxation response:
- Sit comfortably
- Establish equal breathing by counting (mentally) the inhale and exhale
- Begin to lengthen the exhale slowly by gently contracting the abdominal muscles inwards, pushing all the air out
- Shortening the inhalation, inhale 2 and exhale 4.
Or, if you feel you have bigger capacity, inhale for 3 and exhale 6. Or longer!
Continue for a few minutes
If you go beyond your breathing capacity, this will be reflected in the inhalation, as you will tend to gasp for breath. This means you need to shorten the breath cycles. You can even try this while you are walking slowly and mindfully.
Breathing with awareness is key to reducing stress, as well as increasing energy, focus and concentration. It does not take long!