We’ve heard that stress is the silent killer. In our busy lives we carry lots of stress. According to the Global Organization on Stress (yes, there is such a thing!), 75% of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.
We see and hear about the effects of chronic stress from the women in our Leap to Confidence classes every day. Starting over after divorce, having left an abusive relationship, or the challenges of recovery and scrambling to find stability all take its toll on health and well being.
Studies show that chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking and other bad habits people use to cope with stress.
If you’re experiencing stress regularly, and chances are good that you are, I want to encourage you to stop for a moment and take a pause. As we get older, we may need to add new habits into our daily routine to combat the daily stress of life.
Since your breath is always with you, let’s start there. There are many techniques on how to breathe to reduce stress. We went to expert Edmun J. Bourne, PhD who wrote the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. He explains that when stress is unchecked, your breathing often becomes shallow or rapid and the movement is high in your chest.
The way that we breathe reflects the tension that we carry in our body.
When we are relaxed, we breathe
from our abdomen more fully and deeply.
Dr. Bourne recommends an Abdominal Breathing exercise. Here’s why: Abdominal breathing increases oxygen supply to the brain and muscles. It creates greater feelings of connectedness between the mind and body by breaking the bubble of anxiety and worry that keeps you “in your head”. It improves concentration by quieting the mind and can trigger the relaxation response known as Deep Relaxation.
If you suffer from phobias, panic, anxiety, or worries, then you may have problems with your breathing that you are not conscious of. People who are anxious often breathe shallowly from high in their chest. People that breathe from their chest tend to overbreathe, exhaling excess carbon dioxide. Hyperventilating causes a rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and brings on physiological changes that result in feeling nervous and jittery, can cause feelings of disorientation, and even a sense of unreality or separateness from your body.
Take a minute to reflect on how you are breathing right now.
Is your breath slow and controlled or rapid? Deep or shallow?
Do you notice your breath in your chest or down in your abdomen?
If the answer is rapid, shallow, and high in your chest, then you can take steps to retrain yourself to breathe more deeply and from the abdomen. We can help ourselves break this cycle by recognizing hyperventilation and learning to curb it through slow, deliberate breathing.
The following technique can produce a moderate to deep level of relaxation in just three to five minutes.
- Lie on your back in a comfortable environment.
- Sigh in an exaggerated way and allow your upper body to relax with the exhale.
- Place one hand in the center of your rib cage and one hand below your rib cage. Breathe naturally and pay attention to what part of your body your breath is coming through.
- Breathe in through your nose slowly while pushing your stomach out.
- When you’ve inhaled as much as your comfortably can, pause.
- Pause for a time that feels comfortable to you. When you breathe from your abdomen you are taking larger breaths than your body is accustomed to. Make sure to take your time and breathe slowly because you might feel lightheaded from over breathing. If you feel lightheaded or if you find yourself yawning, this is your body’s signal to slow down.
- Open your mouth. Exhale through your mouth and pull your stomach inward, tightening your muscles as you slowly release the air in your lungs.
- Pause and then continue with steps 4-7 at a pace that does not make you yawn or feel lightheaded.
- Repeat for a quick stress release activity for 3-5 minutes or continue for up to 10 minutes for a deeper level of relaxation.
Committing to giving yourself time to enjoy your breath and maintain mindful awareness of your body once a day may seem overwhelming, but with 3-10 minutes you can invest in your whole self with maybe even experience the healing nature of deep relaxation. You can do it!
For a deeper understanding of stress and ways to manage it, read this brief article from the Mayo Clinic.