Life can absolutely get stressful and overwhelming at times…Often in those moments of stress, you may notice that your breathing becomes shallow, and you are taking more breaths; you may even notice your heart rate go up as a response to the stressor.
This is your nervous system reacting to the stress- it increases the heart rate and breathing rate to make sure there’s enough blood and oxygen going around the body. This is part of the “fight or flight” response that has been embedded in our DNA for thousands of years. This response is very helpful if there’s a tiger that pops out of the bushes, or if there’s a caveman chasing after you with a spear…however in today’s society, a lot of the things that stress us out are not immediate dangers to our life. This response is therefore not as helpful, and can often lead to more feelings of stress and anxiety.
Fortunately for us, there is a way to reduce this response to stress, as the system controlling breath and heart rate essentially works “both ways”…meaning that if you can have better control of breathing, you can calm down your whole nervous system, calm the mind, and reduce the body’s perception of stress.
Here are 3 simple breathing exercises that can help you to relax, and to calm down the nervous system.
Square breath/ box breathing
This type of breathing is said to increase relaxation and concentration, and has been adopted by the Navy Seals and some Police Departments and Defence Agencies. The way to do this type of breathing is quite simple- breathe in for the count of 4- hold the inhale for the count of 4- breathe out for the count of 4- hold the exhale for the count of 4- repeat for a few rounds, or for a few minutes.
Long exhalation breathing
How many times have you taken a big sigh and felt relieved or less stressed after a situation? By taking a breath out that is longer and deeper than the breath in, you can help to slow down the nervous system and create a sense of calm in the body. Try starting with a breath in for the count of 4, and then see if you can make the exhale last for 6-8 counts, making sure that you empty the lungs out fully by the end of the exhale. You can do this to almost any count, as long as the exhale is longer than the inhale- this is the key with this type of breathing.
3 part breath/Complete yogic breath
Often when we get stressed or overwhelmed, we breathe only into the top part of our chest, making it harder for the body to get air, and thus reinforcing shorter, more shallow breaths. This also tightens up the muscles in the neck and chest, which can cause tension and further stress.
The 3 part breath aims to maximise the efficiency and depth of breathing. To do this breath, you first fill the belly by directing the air down, and feeling the belly inflate as it fills. As the belly fills, the rib cage should start to fill as it expands in all directions to allow more air. Finally, the upper chest should rise as it allows the rib cage to expand that last little bit to allow as much air as possible into the lungs. On the breath out, the process is reversed- the upper chest relaxes, then the rib cage retracts, and the belly falls as it empties. Try making the breath longer and deeper as you go, and perhaps use virtualisation of the air level rising and falling in your body to help you.
Hopefully next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you can take the time to use one of these exercises to help you to calm down and relax.