Stress begins in the mind and has ramifications throughout the body. The stress response increases heart rate and blood pressure, releases hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol), diverts blood flow from nonessential functions (like digestion) to the muscles to prepare for “fight or flight,” and makes breathing rapid and shallow. We may not be able to directly control heart rate, blood pressure, hormone release, or where our blood is channeled. But we can control our breathing. It’s the only function we do either completely consciously or completely unconsciously. It’s the one area of overlap, because two different sets of muscles and nerves control voluntary and involuntary breathing.
The mind and the body are connected. How we breathe both reflects the state of the nervous system and influences the state of the nervous system. It is impossible to feel stressed when your breathing is regular and slow. Deep breathing is the easiest and most effective way to reduce stress.
When we are upset or angry, breathing becomes shallow, irregular, and noisy. The goal is to make breathing deeper, slower, more quiet and more regular. During times of stress, concentrating on breathing helps relieve tension by bringing the body and mind back to a quiet state of equilibrium and eliciting the relaxation response. Deep breathing also can increase the effectiveness of other relaxation techniques including meditation, imagery, yoga practice, etc.
Breathwork should be practiced at least daily (and preferably twice daily) for just a few minutes; it’s the regularity that will produce results.
Dr. Andrew Weil states that the relaxing breath (also called the 4-7-8 breath) is the most powerful relaxation method he knows of. Sit comfortably with your back straight and place the tip of your tongue against the back of your upper front teeth, where they meet the roof of the mouth (yogic position). Exhale completely and audibly through your mouth. Close your mouth and inhale, quietly, through your nose to a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Then audibly exhale through your mouth to a count of 8. Close your mouth and inhale again, repeating the sequence for a total of 4 complete cycles (initially, don’t exceed the 4 breath cycles).
The 4-7-8 count is important. Pace your counting as quickly as you need to in order to comfortably complete the counts; it is the ratio that is important, not the absolute time. You will exhale for twice as long as you inhale. A longer exhale is relaxing, whereas a longer inhale is energizing.
Another way to breathe when under stress is to simply close your eyes (if the situation permits) and take two or three deep breaths. Feel the release of tension as you exhale and feel yourself refreshed with each inhale.
Yet another exercise involves focusing attention on your solar plexus (the area between the navel and the breastbone) and being aware of your breath flowing in and out; let your abdomen rise and fall naturally with the breath. Tell yourself “I feel calm. All is well.”
Researchers studied subjects with normal blood pressure under a mental stress and then looked at how long it took them to return to normal blood pressure using controlled rhythmic breathing, classical music, nature sounds, or no intervention at all. They concluded that deep breathing was the quickest way to return to normal.
Deep breathing can be done anytime, anywhere. You may not be able to control your circumstances but you can control your breathing. Perhaps the best way to handle unavoidable emotional stress is to allow yourself to feel the feelings, but make sure you keep breathing.
Weil, A. (no date). Dr. Andrew Weil’s Breathing. Self Healing