Stress comes in many forms. It can be physical, chemical or emotional, and it can be perceived or real. No one is immune in this day and age.
This should be a huge revelation for those “worry warts” out there. Stress does not have to be real, just worrying about a possible outcome can have the same negative impact on your nervous system as actually having the event happen.
Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.
This happens automatically without you having to think about it. Something so simple can have a profound effect on your physiology, especially your brain and nervous system.
Your autonomic nervous system is comprised of 2 components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flee response. The stress response. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for rest, recovery and rejuvenation.
The stress response is normal and necessary. It is a natural survival mechanism. However, chronic stress can leave you in that state of high alert without any pause for rest and recovery. Our bodies are not designed to function under this condition for long periods of time. This can lead to stress overload and a breach of your stress threshold.
Breathing exercises can cause an immediate shift from a high stress, sympathetic dominant state to a more calm, cool and collected parasympathetic dominant state. This is why you are often told to “take a deep breath” when you are in a stressful situation. It calms the mind and nervous system.
The American Lung Association recommends we practice breathing exercises for 5–10 minutes per day. Two of the most common breathing exercises incorporate nasal breathing. You can perform these exercises either seated or laying on your back. The nasal breathing technique increases nitric oxide levels, offering up a beneficial boost of energy.
The following exercises are easy to perform and can be done almost anywhere. Give calm a try!
Pursed Lip Breathing
Simply take a deep, slow and steady breath in through your nose and breathe out at least twice as long through your mouth, with pursed lips. This method helps to keep your lungs and airway expanded for a longer duration.
It is helpful to tune into your normal breathing rhythm for several breath cycles prior to starting. You may need to slowly extend your inspiration over several breath cycles. I find it works best to focus on a 4 second inspiration and an 8 second exhale.
This technique works to re-engage your diaphragm. Use the same breathing method and rhythm as described above. In addition, be cognizant of your belly extending as you breathe deeply into your belly.
This may feel uncomfortable and uncoordinated initially. It is likely that you have recruited your neck and shoulders to compensate for your diaphragm with chronic shallow breathing habits. Stick with it.
To take these exercises to the next level and create greater awareness of your breathing in general, and your diaphragmatic engagement specifically, you can try the following modifications to the above exercise. It is best to do these exercises while laying on your back.
1. Put your hands on top of one another other, both palms facing toward you. Place your hands on the center of your chest, just below your collar bones. Let’s call this position 1.
Use the Pursed Lip Breathing technique above and focus your breath under your hands. Complete a few breath cycles and then move your hands a
few inches lower on your chest. Complete a few breath cycles and move your hands a few inches lower and repeat. Continue to move your hands a few inches at a time and complete several breath cycles at each location. Finally, your hands should be right below your ribs and above your belly button. Let’s call this position 2. Complete a few breath cycles here and then work your way back up to position 1. Remember to focus your breath to where your hands are located.
2. Resume position 1. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, concentrating on your chest elevating under your hands. Repeat this several times until it feels comfortable and flows easily.
Now move your hands to position 2. Again, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, focusing on your breath elevating your abdomen as your diaphragm pushes downward. Repeat for several breath cycles.
Alternate between position 1 and position 2, completing several breath cycles at each location. Focus your breath on your hand location.
3. Resume position . Leave your bottom hand on your chest and move your top hand to position 2.Inhale through your nose, focusing your breath on position 1. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
Inhale through your nose, focusing your breath on position 2. Make sure that your belly is rising underneath your hand. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
Continue to alternate your breath between position 1 and position 2. Maintain proper breathing rhythm and keep your body relaxed.
Illustrations courtesy of Mastering the Health Continuum with a special thanks to Ktal Studios and Kenna Miggins.