Breathing away stress

Two men meditating and breathing for relaxation
Two men meditating and breathing for relaxation

Out Health

When we think of breathing exercises to reduce stress, we may often picture ourselves sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat, peacefully seeking a blissful state. That’s a great image. Having a routine meditation practice where we develop a steady habit of mindful breathing and focusing attention can not only reduce our stressful response to everyday life but can also prepare us for the unusual and inevitable tense situations, lessening their troublesome effects.

We may also imagine the use of breathing exercises at the end of a disquieting day to unwind, or right after a disturbing incidence to regain our normal breathing pace and blood pressure. However, in addition to getting into these kinds of meditative grooves and habits, we can use breathing activities right before and during upsetting times to mitigate their effects on our bodies, minds, and spirits.

We respond to stress by activating the “fight or flight” response. According to Harvard Health Publishing of the Harvard Medical School, “It’s what the body does as it prepares to confront or avoid danger. When appropriately invoked, the stress response helps us rise to many challenges. But trouble starts when this response is constantly provoked by less momentous, day-to-day events, such as money woes, traffic jams, job worries, or relationship problems.”

Using breath, we can quell this response, since in such ordinary situations, we don’t need our body to prepare in such a drastic way. If we often have such an extravagant response, Harvard Health continues, “Health problems are one result. A prime example is high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. The stress response also suppresses the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other illnesses.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, benefits of breathing techniques are:

  • Helping you relax.
  • Improving muscle function during exercises and preventing strain.
  • Increasing how much oxygen is in your blood.
  • Making it easier for your body to release gas waste from your lungs.
  • Reducing blood pressure.
  • Reducing heart rate.

Envision yourself sitting in your office, waiting for your boss to come for what you know will be an unpleasant, if not downright ugly discussion. Give yourself five minutes, or more if you can, to prepare yourself and your body to react positively with breath.

First, use depth. Relax your abdomen so that it will expand outward in all directions as you inhale. Breathe in through your nose. Imagine that the air is water pouring down into your stomach and filling it up like a water balloon. The air goes in, down, and outward. Breathe out through your nose, slowly and completely each time. Also let your chest expand outward in all directions while you inhale. Around the sides, around the back, and up through the collar bone. Let it slowly collapse while you exhale.

Second, use pace. Breathe through the smaller opening of your nose, rather than your mouth. Even start to constrict your throat so that the air moves in and out very slowly. This slight constriction will cause your breathing to make a bit of a rushing sound. Try to exhale longer than you inhale. Inhale for about four seconds, and exhale for four, then six, then eight, and for as long as you comfortably can.

Two men meditating and breathing for relaxation
Two men meditating and breathing for relaxation

Finally use control. Inhale for the count of four, hold the breath in for four, without closing your throat or closing the vocal folds, exhale for four, and suspend the breath out for four, again without closing the throat. Do this pattern a few times.

Now your mind is calm, your body is in its normal, relaxed state. You can face the possible trouble that’s coming.

The beautiful thing about this kind of breathing activity is that you can do it during the meeting without anyone knowing. You can do it while driving in traffic. You can do it for no special reason, whenever and wherever you want.

Life has been handing us some rather angering situations. A meditative breathing practice won’t stop us from reacting, but it can give pause to a response based on stress alone, and can lead to one that is more wise and effective.