Take a deep breath and relax. It's easy to say, but sometimes much harder to do. Most of us don't breathe deeply under normal circumstances and during times of stress, we are particularly prone to fast and shallow breathing.
The wonderful thing about using breathing as a stress reduction technique is that it is with us every day at every moment. Whether you're at work, in the car or home, you are always breathing, which means it is always available to you as a way to reduce anxiety.
When you're under stress your muscles tense and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Most of us have heard of the fight or flight response, which was an adaptive and life saving response to stress and danger for prehistoric humans. For them, muscle tension and rapid, shallow breathing was preparation to run or fight. Today, the causes of our stress are different, but our stress response is the same. However, since we're not running or fighting, our tension has no release and our stress response builds.
Breathing Under Stress
One way to counteract the stress response is to learn how to breathe deeply and slowly - the opposite of how we breathe when under stress. Deep breathing is not always natural to adults. Most adults breathe from the chest. This is shallow breathing, so less oxygen is taken in with each breath, which can result in higher blood pressure. Deep breathing, on the other hand, can reverse these effects and lower blood pressure. Why deep breathing lowers blood pressure is not yet entirely clear. A scientist at the National Institutes of Health is currently doing research to determine if how we breathe effects how our bodies break down salt.
In order to get good at deep breathing take some time to practice each day. It's especially important to practice when you're under stress. You can be sitting, standing or lying down, but it helps to wear loose, comfortable clothing. Begin by breathing in through your nostrils. Count to five, silently saying the word "in", and let your lower abdomen fill with air. Then count to five silently saying the word "out" as you let the air escape through your pursed lips. Do this deep breathing for two minutes or more each time. With practice, you will be able to count slowly to 10 or higher. If you feel tired, stop the practice and go back to normal breathing.
Deep Breathing and Mindfulness
In moments when you are upset, anxious or distressed, you can return to the practice of noticing your breath. Following your breath and deep breathing allow you to take hold of your consciousness. Learning to practice breathing can improve your ability to focus your mind, concentrate and control your body. You can use deep breathing anytime, anywhere.
Anderson, D.E., McNeely, J.D.,& Windham, B.G. (2010). Regular slow-breathing exercise effects on blood pressure and breathing patterns at rest. Journal of Human Hypertension advance online publication, doi: 10.1038/jhh.2010.18.
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Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press (1975).