In our fast paced world, stress is at times inevitable. Equally as inevitable is the inundation of information we are faced with about stress and the need to adequately manage it. Even the thought of having to pay closer attention to ourselves and to manage even one more thing in our lives can seem…well stressful!
While there are many ways to manage and reduce stress – some that require minimal attention and time and others that require focused attention and a section reserved on your calendar – there is one tool that you hold with you every moment of the day and that comes at no expense, with no special training, and requires only brief and gentle pauses from time to time: Breathing.
It is important to identify the sources of your stress for a well-rounded stress management plan; one that includes the more focused and perhaps lengthier stress reduction approaches. Stress sources look different for everyone and may include caretaking for someone, a grueling commute to work, financial burdens, a challenging work schedule, an ill family member, uncertainty about the future – the list goes on. Stress symptoms also look different for everyone. It is not uncommon for stress to manifest in the form of insomnia, elevated blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, depression, job performance issues, tension in the body, headaches, and so on. Another robust list is that of strategies to manage stress. Some constructive strategies include exercise, delegating tasks, mindfulness practices, spending time with loved ones, gardening, and therapy. Some less constructive strategies and ones that actually compound stress in the long run, include using substances of abuse, withdrawing, isolation, risk taking behaviors, excess sleeping or eating, and procrastination.
Having an idea of your sources of stress, how stress shows up symptomatically for you, and what coping strategies you currently draw from, are logical first steps in putting together a comprehensive stress management protocol. But don’t stress if you don’t quite have the time to piece this all together just yet – you have the ability to begin reducing the impact of stress on your body and mind today without any assessments or analyses. Let’s take a closer look at how making space for deep breathing each day can start to counteract stress!
Breathing is essential; with each breath we introduce oxygen into our bodies and remove carbon dioxide. Poor breathing habits impede the flow of these natural gases throughout the body, which in turn leaves us less resourced to handle stressful situations. An awareness of your breathing habits and being mindful of incorporating time for pauses of focused breathing each day can improve and enhance both your physiological and psychological well-being. There are two common patterns of breathing, chest or thoracic breathing and abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing. The latter is the type of breathing we should strive for as it produces the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide necessary for normalizing our heartrate, easing muscle tension, and reducing an array of stress-related symptoms.
How does diaphragmatic breathing work and how can I make it a habit?
(Adapted from The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, & Mathhew McKay, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA, 2008)
- Sit upright in a comfortable seat and place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest while noticing your natural breathing. Are you filling up your chest area or your abdomen with each breath? The latter constitutes diaphragmatic breathing. Think of your abdomen like a balloon and with each breath in, imagine you’re filling the balloon
- Once you’ve found a rhythm and are successfully filling up your abdomen with each nourishing deep breath, turn your attention to timing. Keep each exhale slightly longer that each inhale. That is, if you inhale for a count of two, aim for an exhale of a three or four count. It is with the exhale that your body is signaled to relax and the full benefit of deep breathing can be experienced.
- Now focus on the feeling of your breathing. As you allow air in, imagine that it’s making its way to areas of tension or pain in your body. Allow your breath to soothe those areas.
- When thoughts, feelings, or sensations become noticeable, take note, but gently return your focus to your breathing.
- This exercise can be completed in as little as one minute but provides maximum benefits when you allow for five minutes and beyond.
Making it a Habit:
- Find a time of day that you can carve out a few quiet moments for yourself – this might be first thing in the morning, during a lunch break, or before bedtime. A note about consistency: A regular habit of deep breathing at roughly the same time of day is considered best practice, but this is not always possible given the busy lives we lead, so if you just simply fit this practice in whenever, wherever, and however you can – good for you, you will still be giving a gift to yourself!
- Start with a realistic and manageable goal of once a day for a minute or two, then work your way up the frequency and duration ladder.
- Check in with yourself before and after each deep breathing session. Scale your stress, tension, and relaxation levels. By noticing a decrease in stress and tension, and an increase in relaxation, you will be more likely to continue this new habit. Think positive reinforcement.
The great thing about utilizing a deep breathing regimen as part of your stress reduction arsenal is that it’s a free tool readily available to you at any given moment. In addition to making a habit of breathing for stress maintenance, when you find yourself taking shallow breaths throughout the day, pause to take a few diaphragmatic breaths. Consider incorporating focused breathing not only as a reactive tool but a proactive tool as well. Stress reduction and stress prevention can work hand in hand!
To summarize, routine deep breathing helps detoxify your body, combats a host of stress-related symptoms, strengthens many of the body’s internal organs and systems, and helps to create a balanced and grounded mindset.
No special training or materials need to be purchased, and there is no learning curve – so don’t wait another minute. Turn your attention away from this blog post and give it a try!
Smile, breathe and go slowly. ~Thích Nhất Hạnh