Relieving Stress with the Breath
When you own your breath, no one can steal your peace.
Oxygen is the most critical nutrient for our survival. When we’re stressed, we tend to hold our breath or breathe very shallow. This creates more stress on our bodies by reducing mental and physiological functions. It is a vicious cycle, but thankfully there is something we can do about it – as long as we are mindful.
The quickest way to reverse tension and relieve stress is to breathe properly. Heart attacks and panic attacks have been aborted simply by the person restoring optimal breathing patterns. The key is to learn how to move your body from a Sympathetic nervous response to a Parasympathetic response.
So.. What Exactly are Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Responses?
Our body’s autonomic nervous system, which plays a key role in responding to stressful situations, is broken down into two opposing components: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.
The Sympathetic Nervous System allows your body to function when under stress. This is your “fight or flight” response. In a sympathetic response, your heart rate
increases, breath quickens, sugar is pumped from your liver into your blood to prepare for quick energy, and adrenaline and cortisol are secreted. Stress felt at home, work, school or while driving can trigger your sympathetic nervous system. You can tell when your body is in sympathetic response – your jaw may be clenched, your body may feel tense and ready to rage, and you might begin to sweat.
Thankfully, our bodies have the Parasympathetic Nervous System to counteract the effects of the Sympathetic. The parasympathetic state activates tranquility and relaxation in the body. Our muscles release, digestion is stimulated, and the “fight or flight” response is reversed. Our bodies begin to relax and our mental state becomes more clear and joyful.
So…How Can I Get from Sympathetic to Parasympathetic?
Your breath! The best way to stay relaxed is to simply be aware of your breathing pattern. Start by taking long breaths, remembering to consciously inhale and exhale fully. Doing this allows us to pause, and start to shift our thinking. We can let go of the situation, move away from tension, and relax our bodies.
The lungs are elastic tissues; inhalation takes effort, but exhalation does not. For this reason, when you are stressed or feel like you are holding your breath, focus your attention on your inhalation.
Next, focus on lengthening your breath, first by inhaling deeply and then letting the breath go completely. Practice this for several breaths and establish a rhythm of steady, slow, relaxed and full breaths.
One way to visualize this is to imagine your lungs are a jug of water – as you fill up a jug, water collects at the bottom first. Slowly send your breath to the very bottom part of your lungs. Feel your lungs expand outward like an accordion as you fill them up with air. As you exhale, feel your shoulders melt away from your ears and your neck relax.
By being observant of your breathing and practicing optimal breathing more regularly, you will eventually do this without thinking about it. This will help you to stay focused, effective, calm and peaceful throughout your day.
Over time, this will also bring you more happiness and health…now that is a goal worth working towards!