I like to be busy. I love to learn. I love to move. I love to be surrounded by the people I care about. If there's something to do or be distracted by, I'll find it. Yet the older I get and as the world keeps moving faster, offering ever more ways of staying connected, I find it more and more vital to consciously slow down.
Finding effective tools for staying grounded and calm is a necessary tool not only for avoiding burnout but for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
One of the most effective and time-efficient methods of relaxation I've found is working mindfully with my breath. It requires no special equipment, costs nothing, takes only a few minutes and is available at anytime during the day to soothe and center me.
Why Focus on the Breath?
Breathing is the one bodily function that is under both conscious/voluntary and involuntary control which makes it a powerful way to influence mental and emotional states that seem overwhelming and to break patterns of stress and anxiety.
Parasympathetic vs Sympathetic Nervous System. . . a.k.a "Rest & Digest" vs "Fight or Flight"
Whether or not you think about it, you will keep you breathing. This is an example of involuntary control, regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is divided into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (controlling the relaxation response and activities of the body) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (which prepares the body for action, more commonly known as the "Fight of Flight" response).
When faced with stress (whether a physical danger or mental/emotional threat), the Sympathetic Nervous system is triggered, diverting energy away from our higher cognitive reasoning, digestion and any systems not considered vital for survival. Our animal brains kick in, our hearts beat faster, adrenaline is released, we begin to sweat and our breath becomes short and shallow.
This reaction is meant to keep us alive in times of danger, yet due to stress, many of us are constantly functioning in this way leading to adrenal fatigue, hypertension & heart disease, digestive problems, poor sleep and anxiety.
Our breath pattern is affected by this stress response without our conscious control; however, the breath is also under conscious control - we can hold it, lengthen it, make it rough or smooth. By mindfully manipulating our breath pattern we can gradually turn the fight or flight pattern off and turn on the rest and reset functions of our Parasympathetic Nervous System.
There are many ways to work with the breath to ease tension, clear the mind and relax the body. Here are a couple simple techniques that take only a few minutes and over time will prove to be powerful tools for relieving stress and maintaining calm.
The most basic of these is to simply observe the breath. Without trying to change it, draw your attention to your breath. Feel the inhale. Feel the exhale. Notice if there's any pause between the two or if one is longer than the other. Feel if and how the body moves with the breath. Try to do this for 2-5 minutes.
This simple technique is a basic form of mediation, a powerful relaxation technique. It gives the mind something to focus on and begins to harmonize the mind, body and spirit.
Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
When stressed, our breath tends to be rapid and shallow and high in the body, utilizing only the upper lungs, chest and neck muscles. When at rest, our breath is slow and deep. The breath moves lower in the lungs and the diaphragm and abdominal muscles are used to draw in more air. As you observe your breath, notice which of these patterns describes your breath.
To turn on the body's natural relaxation response, lengthen and smooth out your inhale and exhale. Relax your jaw and shoulders. Draw your breath down towards your belly and let it expand with the inhale. If this feels challenging, place your hand on your belly and think of breathing your belly into your hand. With the exhale, feel the belly and ribs gently move back inwards. Practice this anytime for 2-5 minutes and notice any changes in your mood as well as for any release in your jaw, neck and shoulders
I first learned of this breath technique from the writings of Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the University of Arizona Center of Integrative Medicine. A simple technique, similar to many of the more complex pranayamas (breath techniques) practiced in yoga, it can be done anytime to quickly dial down the nervous system to reduce stress and create a grounded, peaceful feeling.
- Exhale all your air out through the mouth then close the mouth.
- Inhale silently and smoothly through the nose for a count of 4.
- Hold the breath (without tensing in the jaw or throat) for a count of 7.
- Exhale audibly through the mouth for a count of 8
That's one cycle of breath. Do 4 full cycles of breath and then return to your normal breathing pattern, noticing for any changes in your mood or body. The benefits of working mindfully with the breath are gradual and cumulative over time so the more often you practice (start by doing this at least twice a day), the greater the benefit.
Some great times to practice:
- Before bed or anytime you wake up in the night
- In the car
- Before or after a meeting or important conversation
- Anytime you catch your mind racing or feel overwhelmed