Stressed out? Just breathe!

Getting stressed out seems like an unavoidable side effect of modern life, and it is just that; unavoidable. It’s how we condition and learn how to cope with getting stressed which will hugely effect our wellbeing.

Breathing and being aware of your breath is a great tool to bring your body from a response mode of fight or flight to a response mode of rest and digest. It is often said “take a deep breath to calm down”, and that age old saying is full of truth.

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh

During stressful situations the human body releases a stress hormone cortisol, as a result the heart rate and blood pressure increases, triggering the fight or flight response.

“Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight mechanism is part of the general adaptation syndrome defined in 1936 by Canadian biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal.”

In fight or flight response the human body becomes mobilised and ready for action, however there has to be a physical release of fight or flight, if not “cortisol levels build up in the blood which wreaks havoc on your mind and body.” This reaction then can contribute to chronic conditions such as hypertension, headaches and anxiety disorders. As explained in an article published by Harvard Health Publications:

“The term ‘fight or flight’ is also known as the stress response. 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.”

So the system which was designed to help us to survive as hunters and gatherers is now backfiring and sabotaging our bodies and minds in the sedentary modern age.

Luckily there are several easy ways how to help our bodies to release cortisol and help to bring our bodies back into a rest and digest response, during which the breathing and heart rate slows down and the blood pressure decreases. One of the most accessible ways is controlled breathing, it not only helps the mind and body to function at their best, controlled breathing also brings a sense of calm and relaxation. So here is a list of four breathing practices which will help you to keep your stress levels in control and your mind at ease. These breathing exercises you can do from anywhere, even from the confines of your working desk, there is no special equipment needed, just your awareness and your breath.  They will help you to keep calm and carry on with your day.

Deep breathing or abdominal breathing.

Even just taking few deep breaths can help to reduce tension and relieve stress levels in the body. Breathing in through the nose, letting the air coming in through your nostrils to fully fill the lungs and expand abdominal area, and breathing out letting the body to soften and fold. Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange and improves oxygen levels in the bloodstream.

Breath counting.

This breathing inquiry is widely used as a part of a meditation practice. Let the breath come and go naturally, breathing through the nose with eyes open or closed. Inhale and as you exhale count “one”, and again at the end of your out breath count “two”. Keep counting as far as ten and then start counting backwards going from ten back to one. If the mind wanders and the count is lost, start from the beginning to the count of “one”.

Lengthening the exhale.

If the exhale is even a little bit longer than the inhale, it activates in your body the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body into the rest and digest response. Breathing through the nose, pick a count for your inhale and then a slightly longer one for your exhale. Start with inhaling to the count of 2 and exhaling to the count of 4, slowly increasing the count to 4 and 6, and then even to 6 and 8 if it feels comfortable.

4-7-8 breath or the Relaxing Breath.

This breathing method has been pioneered by the US sleep expert Dr Andrew Weil and is based on a yogic practice of pranayama. It helps to calm the mind and relax the muscles, bringing ease to the mind and body.

Watch the instructional video below for full instructions of Dr Weil’s 4-7-8 breath.