You are probably wondering how there is a link between breathing and stress? Breathing is a signal and information to the brain about how the body is. So, the more stressed you feel, the faster you breathe, and your brain will notice this and read it as a signal that things are not going well. That fast, shallow breathing takes your body into the “fight or flight mode” and this tells your brain that you are on full alert and as a cave man response your brain takes this information and thinks that you’re running from a tiger/ lion. When stress is present for long periods of time, the body adopts these altered breathing patterns as the “norm” and our body begins to change the way it functions on a daily basis, causing the diaphragm to weaken through poor recruitment. This creates tension and tight shoulders, neck and obliques. If you take shallow breaths to the chest (when you are busy or a fast talker) your ribs remain tight and can cause aching across the upper back and shoulders. Breathing deeper can help you use better use of Intercostals (muscles in the rib cage) and erector spinae (in the back).
But the reverse of this rule is also true: if you breathe slowly, you’re giving your brain a signal that you’re in a place of calm. You will start to feel less stressed. Studies have even shown that slower breathing can reduce our perception of pain, it can change your stress response and it also reduces stress-related conditions, such as headaches, neck pain, upper and lower back pain, high blood pressure, gastro-esophageal reflux and anxiety (Ehrer et al 2012), it also lowers blood pressure and heart rate, lowers cortisol levels within the blood, lowers lactic acid build up within muscle tissue. Breathing correctly with a relaxed mouth as you breathe out through relaxed lips also releases tension in the neck, back and jaw, it can also improve immune system function, improve energy levels and improve wellbeing.
Create a daily practice of breathing – You don’t have to stick to the same breathing practice each time. Play around and experiment. Within a few days, you’ll find a technique that works for you. Aim to do at least one of these practices every day. Even one minute per day of focused, intentional breathing can make a big difference.
Try these different methods of breathing –
– Diaphragmatic / thoracic breathing – Lie on your back (or sit up tall) with your hands on your lower ribs and your eyes closed (Posture is of great importance for diaphragm efficiency). As you breathe in, fill the air up under your hands and allow the ribs and belly to expand up and outwards. Don’t let the upper chest rise. Relax the air out without squeezing the abdominals. Continue this for 3 minutes and be mindful of putting this technique into practice through the workday and while exercising. A great tip is to set reminders on your phone or computer to remind you to stop, take a break and think about how you’re breathing throughout the day to help you curb your habits of shallow, stressed breathing.
– One minute, six breaths. Set aside just one minute to consciously take six breaths. This means that each breath should take about ten seconds to complete, in and out. Use a timer or the second hand of a clock to keep track. If you’re new to this kind of practice, you may find that eight breaths in one minute is a little easier to start with. I’d like you to do this once in the morning after you’ve got up, once after lunch and once just before you go to bed. You’ll slow your heart rate down; help activate your thrive state. If you do this for just sixty seconds in the morning, you’ll start to become more aware of your breath for the remainder of the day.
– 3–4–5 Breath. I find that this exercise can be extremely effective for clients who are prone to anxiety or stress. Breathe in for three seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for five seconds. When your outbreath is longer than your in-breath, you reduce the activation of your stress state and encourage your body to move into a thrive state. You can do a few rounds of this breath or extend it to take five minutes.
– Box breathing. This can be done at any time, it’s especially useful just before bedtime. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, then hold for another four. Box breathing helps lower stress levels, calm the nervous system and take your mind away from distracting thoughts.
– Nadi Shodhan. Alternate-nostril breathing can give a boost of energy as well as help you fall asleep. Sit comfortably, with your shoulders relaxed. Place your right thumb on to your right nostril to block it and fully exhale through your left nostril. Breathe in through your left nostril for a count of four. Place the ring finger and little finger of your right hand on to your left nostril to block it. Release your right thumb and breathe out through your right nostril for a count of four. At the end of the breath, keep your fingers where they are and breathe in through the right nostril for four. Place the thumb back over the right nostril and breathe out through the left nostril. This is one cycle. Start off by doing ten rounds.
– Kapalabhati. Otherwise known as the ‘Skull Shining Breath’, this forced diaphragmatic breath is a pretty intense exercise but great for a quick pick-me-up. As you take a full deep breath in through your nose, your abdomen will expand. As you exhale, pull your belly button in forcefully and actively, as if it’s going in towards the spine. (It can be helpful to think about throwing your breath out.) After each exhale, as your abdomen expands again, you’ll automatically start to inhale. Do ten to twenty of these breaths. Afterwards, pay attention to how you feel. Please avoid doing it on an empty stomach, if you’re pregnant, have a stent or pacemaker or a history of epilepsy or a hernia.
Give some of these techniques a go and let me know how you get on.