Health and wellbeing advisor, yoga therapist, and dietitian, Suzanne Pearson shares her tips on the importance of breathing and how it can help during times of stress. The quality of your breath reflects the state of your body and mind. When we experience stress, our heart tends to beat faster, our blood pressure rises, and our breath quickens. As an immediate response, these effects can be beneficial, enhancing both our mental and physical performance. But remaining in a state of stress over the long-term can put your health at serious risk. Learning to bring awareness to the breath is one way to help manage feelings of stress.
You may have heard people talking about breath work and/or breathing practices. There are a multitude of breathing practices that elicit different responses in both mind and body. When experiencing feelings of stress, beginning with a practice that elicits a relaxation response is a good place to start.
Sighing is a natural and spontaneous response by the body to help regulate the breath, balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and reduce muscular tension. A physiological sigh is a pattern of breathing that occurs naturally to help bring a sense of calm. You can practice physiological sighs voluntarily any time you want to cultivate a relaxation response.
Take one long inhale through the nose, followed by another smaller inhale to fill the lungs, then open the mouth and sigh out a long, slow, extended exhale - like a long sigh of relief. This type of breath may bring an immediate sense of calm, but you can repeat a few more times, as desired.
If you are unable to breathe through your nose or mouth for whatever reason, complete the entire practice through either the nose or mouth, as you are able.
Turning your attention and awareness to your breath can be a quick and effective way to shift your mental and physical state. You may experience a sense of calm just by noticing the breath, without even trying to change it. This is sometimes called breath awareness.
You can practice breath awareness any time. Notice how you breathe in different situations. When you wake up, when enjoying your morning coffee, while driving, while playing with the kids, while exercising, while doing things you enjoy and while doing less pleasurable tasks…any time. Take note of how you breathe in different states of emotion. When you are happy, when you are frustrated, when you are excited or even when you are thinking about positive or negative experiences.
In a state of stress, you may notice that your breath becomes shallow. You may feel it in your throat or upper lungs. You may feel tension through your upper back, shoulders, or neck. Bring attention to your breath and notice if this brings any change to your body or mind.
When breath awareness becomes a familiar practice, you may find it useful to try guiding the breath to bring a sense of calm in times of need. Find a comfortable position standing, seated or lying down. Place your hands on your upper belly, just below your rib cage. Bring attention to the feeling of your hands on your body. If you are able, breath in and out through the nose and incorporate sighs through the mouth whenever you need. After a few breaths, you may notice your hands rise on your inhale and fall with your exhale. Over time you may find you naturally extend the exhale eliciting relaxation through the mind and body. Notice your breath and any changes in the way you feel. This type of breathing, sometimes called diaphragmatic or belly breathing, can help to bring calm when you are feeling stressed.
You can use the breath intentionally to leave a state of stress and enter a state of calm. Diverting attention away from your thoughts can also help to reduce stress. Some may even find it useful to practice at night before bed to help promote sleep.