Happy first day of Autumn! This article was recently featured in September's Issue of Live, Love, and Eat Magazine. If you're already feeling frazzled by the hustle and bustle of back to school, busier schedules, and a to-do list that's a mile long, read on...
In the blink of an eye, the lazy days of Summer are gone, with berry-stained fingers, relaxing beach or lakeside vacations, and festive BBQ get-togethers now just a fond memory. If you’re in “back to school” or “back to the grind” mode, you know quite well that this can be both an exciting and stressful time. Let’s be honest – it’s usually more stressful than exciting. The stress can slam you from several directions: adapting to a new, busier schedule, more errands, being stuck in heavier traffic, and having to manage the schedules, expectations, and needs of your partner, children and colleagues. It can be extremely overwhelming, causing us to dread the hustle and bustle of the Fall Season.
Under severe stress, it feels like we are lugging a backpack that just keeps getting heavier. The chronic activation of the body’s stress-response system and the subsequent overexposure to stress hormones disrupts almost all body processes, and puts us at risk of numerous health problems if left unchecked: anxiety, depression, digestive problems, insomnia, headaches, weight gain, memory impairment, and heart disease. However, we have the ability to choose how we handle stress. Hans Selye, a scientist who pioneered modern stress research once said, “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
To effectively combat stress, we need to activate the body’s natural relaxation response: a physical state of deep rest that decreases heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. The relaxation response is not activated by lounging on the couch and zoning out to Netflix. Instead, it is a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused. While there are a myriad of stress reduction techniques, there is one technique that completely obliterates stress, is absolutely free, can be practiced anywhere, and by anyone (even your kids!). The good news: you are already doing it – you just need to pay more attention to it.
Have you guessed it yet? Breathing.
You may be thinking, “Is this a trick? I am breathing right now, and I still feel stressed!” Well, I am here to tell you that not all breaths are created equal! Stress can cause shortness of breath, where your inhales only expand your chest cavity rather than fully into your abdomen. Once you feel short of breath, it is common to become nervous or anxious, which sets off the fight-or-flight stress response. Short or shallow breathing causes reduced circulation of oxygen throughout the body, which results in increased fatigue, decreased mental clarity, and a weaker immune system. So it is no wonder we feel tired, unfocused, and tend to get sick when we are stressed.
Deep abdominal breathing for as little as 10 minutes a day will reduce anxiety and stress, as it supplies oxygen to your brain and promotes calmness. The following four breathing techniques help you connect to your body and calm your mind, and can be done anywhere, and by anyone! You can even teach your children these exercises, and better yet, do them together for relaxing family connection time.
Belly (Abdominal) Breathing
This is the most basic breathing method at our stress-relief disposal, with only a few steps. Try this method before moving on to more intermediate or advanced techniques.
- Sit down comfortably with a straight spine, or lay down on a rug or yoga mat with legs extended.
- Place one hand on your belly, just below your ribcage. Place your second hand over your chest.
- Inhale deeply through your nostrils, letting your first hand be pushed upwards by your belly. The chest will stay still.
- Exhale through pursed lips, as if you were about to whistle. Gently press the hand on your belly downward to help push the breath out.
- Work up to six to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes a day, or continue as long as needed. To help train the breath, consider biofeedback tools such as the Breathe Strong app, which helps you pace your breathing.
Tip: This exercise is great for children to learn, as you can have them lay down on their backs with their favorite stuffed animal or light toy on their bellies. Gently instruct them to pay attention to the rise and fall of the toy as they breathe.
- Sit or lay down comfortably on a flat surface (rug or yoga mat). Place one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest.
- Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your upper front teeth. Keep your tongue here for the entire breathing exercise. You will exhale through your mouth around your tongue.
- Exhale completely out of your mouth, making a whooshing sound.
- Close your mouth, and quietly inhale through your nose to a count of four. Feel your chest and belly rise on your inhale.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing sound, to a count of eight.
For this exercise, you are always inhaling quietly through your nose, and audibly through your mouth. The tongue stays in the same position the entire time. With practice, you can slow down the inhales and exhales, while keeping the 4:7:8 ratio. The count ratio is important: holding the breath for 7 counts allows oxygen to fill the lungs and circulate through the body. Exhaling for more counts (eight) than the inhale (four) also stimulates the vagus nerve to induce the relaxation response. This breathing exercise is subtle, but becomes more powerful with repetition and practice. Start with 4 rounds to begin, and gradually increase as desired, or as time permits.
This exercise encourages you to use the full capacity of your lungs. Beginners are advised to lie down, but after practice you can sit to complete this exercise.
- Sit or lie down with your left hand on your belly and right hand on your chest.
- Slowly inhale from your lower lungs so that your left “belly hand” rises up when you inhale, and your right “chest hand” is still. Exhale out of your mouth. Repeat 8-10 times.
- On the 9th breath, add a second layer to your breathing: inhale first into your lower lungs as before, and then continue inhaling into your upper chest. Your right hand will rise.
- Making a whooshing sound, exhale slowly through your mouth. Your left “belly hand” will fall first, followed by your right “chest hand”. Notice that the movement of your torso is similar to the rise and fall of rolling waves. Practice breathing this way for 3-5 minutes. As you exhale, you will feel your tension begin to melt away.
Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing)
Nadi Shodhana (pronounced “NAH-dee Show-DAH-nah”) is a yoga breathing technique, where Nadi is Sanskrit for “channel” or “flow”, and shodhana means “purification”. This intermediate breathing technique calms the body by bringing balance to the right and left sides of the brain. This breathing exercise is best practiced in the early morning or during your afternoon energy slump, as it can also have an energizing effect.
- Start in a comfortable seated position. With the right hand, place the index and middle finger on the bridge of your nose.
- Hold the thumb over the right nostril and inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- At the peak of inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril.
- Next inhale through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhale through the left nostril. Continue with this pattern, alternating side to side, for at least 5 minutes.
- When you are ready to close your practice, complete your final round with an exhalation through the left nostril.
- Place your right hand comfortably in your lap, and take several full breaths through both nostrils.
After you have completed your breathing practice, notice any shifts in your state of mind and the release of tension in your body. How are you feeling? What sensations are present in your body? Quietly observe the effects of your practice, and take a moment to thank yourself for taking some time just for you. While stress and daily frustrations may creep back in after a long day or week, the good news is that our breath will always be there to guide us towards calmness and peace.