I used to laugh whenever someone would suggest using ‘breathing’ as a way to calm down.
“Sure, lady,” I’d think. “Breathing will solve all my problems, and world peace while I’m at it.”
I’d later discover how specific breathing would get me through labour, and then again the benefits when I became a meditation teacher.
When we’re stressed, one of the first things most of us will do is to hold our breath, which unfortunately just causes our stress to increase further. Not exactly ideal.
When we’re moments away from losing it, the last thing we need is even more stress.
Now, I’d like to add here that not all stress is bad, and in fact some stress can be very, very helpful, but what is damaging to our minds and bodies is prolonged stress. So finding ways to bring our systems into a better sense of calm is not just a nice idea, it gives us a biological benefit too.
So is there a flip side of stress? There is! The Relaxation Response (or activation of the parasympathetic nervous system for the other nerds like me) is when we rest, digest, heal and nourish our bodies.
And it’s actually possible to use breath to consciously switch this nervous system response on. The sages knew what they were on about after all!
When starting a meditation, one of the first things we’re often told to do is to take a big breath.
The problem with this is that this can actually cause our body to ignore stress instead of bringing ourselves out of the stress response and into the relaxation response.
Instead of forcing a breath, try first just noticing your breath. Feeling how deep or shallow it is, how long or short the breath is, how easy or hard it feels, light or heavy etc.
Noticing our body systems grounds our body and allows us to get in touch with where we’re at first, so that any breath we do take can be more conscious and working with the body instead of trying to make it do something.
Before starting any kind of conscious breathing, and doing this regularly through the day can help us to become better in tune with our body. This, in turn, is the starting point for being able to regulate our stress responses, something we can’t do unless we know what that stress actually feels like for us.
This is a great first breathing practice. It’s an introduction to conscious nostril breathing, which means it’s easy for beginners, but still brings a great calming effect on the body.
Equal breathing involves breathing in and out through the nose for equal lengths of time. If you’re not sure how long to breathe for, 4 seems to be a magic starting number.
Practice breathing in for count of 4, and out for count of 4.
As you get better at this, you’ll find you can breathe in and out for longer – work your way up in slow increments, 6, 8, 10. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn to breathe long, deep breaths.
As often as you can, to help keep that body connection and keep transitioning your body into the ‘relaxation’ response.
Deep abdominal breathing is one of my favourite breathing techniques. It helps to bring me back down off some crazy cliffs, and when I use it regularly, helps me to create space within myself. Finding that space is a crucial part of being able to navigate the constant ups and downs of modern parenting, and I get great feedback on this technique from my birth clients too.
Placing one hand on the belly, begin by gently pushing in the belly, expelling any stale air that’s left in the lungs so you can take in as much new, clean air as you can. As you breathe in through the nose, puff out your belly. Draw the air down your windpipe, letting your belly and ribs expand as you do so.
As you breathe out through the nose, notice your chest move in, ribs move in and then belly move in. Really contract those stomach muscles and squuueeezzeeee the air out, through your nose.
As you relax, you’ll notice the air naturally coming into your lungs again. Inhale, and let your belly expand, ribs expand and your chest expand, bringing in as much air as you can, before actively squeezing the air out by contracting your stomach again.
Keep repeating the pattern, finding your own rhythm, and reminding yourself that you’re not aiming for perfection – just progress.
It takes a while to get used to, but once you’ve got it down, you’ll start noticing the amazing effects of this breathing technique.
Once you’re nice and comfortable with the deep abdominal breathing, try to slow down your out-breath so that eventually your exhalations take even longer than your inhalations. As you get more practiced, you may like to hold your breath between inhaling and exhaling too.
Whenever you’re feeling stressed, and as many times a day as you like!
Of course not. But using the breath regularly through the day will make a definite improvement to your ability to ride the ups and downs.
It also improves your general health, reversing the stress reaction by providing more oxygenation of the blood, which results in better relaxation, improved general health and better emotional balance and control. By switching on the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, you allow your body to rest, relax and repair. It also gradually improves your lung capacity.
Biology lesson aside, breathing practices like these can help you to regulate your stress levels and feel calmer and more connected.
All pretty great reasons to practice using the breath to anchor your day.
Starting to get a handle on stress doesn’t have to be complicated. Let me know how you go!
© Anna Siebert and Anna Siebert Blog, 2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Anna Siebert and Anna Siebert Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.