Posted on | October 20, 2010 | 4 Comments
Given that I’m committed to downsizing the ol’ bod, I dug into my bag of self-help tricks to come up with new stress-reducing techniques. Although many of my daily self-care tools are helpful for reducing stress, I need something that’s fast and easy to do, something I can do before my ingrained habit to reach for food can kick in.
I’ve begun using two breathing techniques to de-stress, and they’re helping tremendously. I’ll share the two techniques in a second. First, here’s why breathing exercises can relieve stress:
The Anatomy Of Stress
Acute stress is a gift to us from our ancestry. Increased heart rate, dilated pupils, blood rushing away from our fingers and toes and toward our large muscles, cortisol flooding our system—these are all bodily functions activated by our automatic “fight-or-flight” response. It’s a clever system, actually. Our bodies are designed to be prepared to fight or to run the second we’re face to face with what we perceive to be a threat.
The problem with the process is that it tends to be a bit quick on the draw. Because we don’t face many menacing tigers or bears these days, we mistake daily problems for life-threatening ones. Any upset can activate our autonomic nervous system, kicking it into full-blown fight or flight responses.
One of the most typical stress responses is shallow breathing, and this fast breathing can prolong stress and anxiety. This is why deliberate breathing exercises can relieve stress symptoms. Many scientific studies have shown that correct breathing can help manage stress and stress-related conditions by soothing the autonomic nervous system.
Controlled breathing can also help manage a whole range of disorders, including anxiety, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, high blood pressure, insomnia, panic attacks, and some skin conditions, such as eczema.
It’s All About The Gases
Our brain sets our breathing rate according to carbon dioxide levels, rather than oxygen levels. When we’re under stress, our breathing pattern changes. We take small, shallow breaths, using our shoulders rather than our diaphragm to move air in and out of the lungs.
This way of breathing empties too much carbon dioxide out of our blood and upsets our body’s balance of gases. Shallow over-breathing can trigger even more stress responses, like chest tightness, fatigue, faintness and lightheadedness, headaches, heart palpitations, insomnia, muscular aches, and tingling or numb or cold hands and face.
The Relaxation Response—Abdominal Breathing
When we’re is relaxed, our breathing is slow, even and gentle. Deliberately mimicking a relaxed breathing pattern calms the autonomic nervous system.
Abdominal breathing is relaxed breathing. To shift to abdominal breathing, you need to consciously breathe into your diaphragm instead of your upper chest. Doing this is easy.
1. Sit comfortably and raise your ribcage to expand your chest.
2. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen and notice of how your upper chest and abdomen move as you breathe.
3. Concentrate on your breath and keep your chest still.
Your goal is to raise and lower your diaphragm, or upper abdomen, rather than your chest and rib cage.
Two Calming Breathing Techniques
1. The 1-4-2 Breath
This breath is a great way to slow breathing and quiet your mind. The process is simple.
1. Breathe in to a count of 1.
2. Hold your breath to a count of 4.
3. Release your breath to a count of 2.
The amount of time for that count is up to you. It’s a ratio. If you breathe in for 4 seconds, you hold your breath for sixteen seconds and breathe out for 8 seconds.
I like to make things easy, and I also like to play with two puppies with one toy, so I combine this breath with an affirmation and use the affirmation to keep track of the ratio instead of counting.
When I first started this technique, I used the affirmation, “I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender healthy woman.”
1. So I’d breathe in, saying, in my mind, “I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman.”
2. I’d hold my breath to “I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman, once. I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman, twice. I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman, thrice. I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman four times.”
3. Then I’d breathe out to “I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman, once. I’m a sexy, beautiful, slender, healthy woman, now.”
After a short time, I lengthened the affirmation, which in turn lengthens the breath (which helps build up lung capacity). I’m now up to “I’m a sexy, slender, beautiful, healthy, wealthy, youthful woman. Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” I think this once breathing in, four times holding my breath, and two times breathing out.
The beauty of doing the breath to an affirmation is that it focuses the mind on a positive thought. So you combine stress relief with raising your energy vibration. You can tailor your affirmation to your own specific vision of you and your life.
2. Alternate Nostril Breathing (Pranayama)
This breathing technique is just what it sounds like. You breathe through alternate nostrils, like this:
Place a hand gently on your nose (I’ll describe the process using your right hand, but use whichever hand is more comfortable). The position of your hand puts your index finger on the bridge of your nose, your ring and middle fingers on one side of your nose and your thumb on the other.
Now follow this process:
1. Gently close off your left nostril with your fingers.
2. Breathe in through your right nostril to a count of four.
4. Cover your right nostril with your thumb and release your fingers from your left nostril.
5. Breathe out through your left nostril to a count of four.
7. Breathe in through your left nostril to a count of four.
9. Cover your left nostril with your fingers and breathe out through your right nostril to a count of four.
This is one round. Repeat this process as many times as you’d like.
Alternate nostril breathing is an excellent stress relieving technique, but it has other great benefits as well. When you do it regularly, it can
- Restore imbalances in your brain (left vs. right brain thinking)
- Improve sleep
- Boost clarity of thinking
- Cleanse your lungs
- Increase energy levels
These breathing techniques are very powerful, but be smart with them. Don’t hold your your breath for long if you have high blood pressure. Start slow with these breathing exercises and increase frequency and times over time.