It's so simple, and yet so powerful. We change the way we breathe when stressed, anxious, depressed, frightened, relaxed... When sad or grieving we may tend to sigh deeply. When tired we yawn. When anxious, fearful, or stressed we tend to take short, shallow breaths and may even hold our breath without realizing it. The rhythm of our breaths and the length and depth of our breaths send important messages to the brain which then alerts the body "Get ready!", "Look out!", "Be careful". You know that edge of your chair feeling when watching a scary or suspensful movie? You brace yourself, your muscles tense, and you might even hold your breath. Whether you are really being chased or just watching someone else being chased your body responds. It doesn't matter if it is real, fiction, or a memory. With those changes in breath, tension, and posture the body responds by releasing biochemicals that prepare us for fight, flight, or freeze.
Sometimes tension and stress accumulates and we all need to find ways to de-stress and relax. Being mindful of your breath is one way to take charge of stress levels and work on learning to manage daily stress in the moment. With practice the following breathing exercises can have a greater impact and can become very helpful when coping with the daily frustrations and stresses we face in our lives.
Take a moment and bring your attention to your breath and any tightness or tension in your body. At first, just observe. Are your breaths shallow and only filling the top portion of your lungs or are they deep and expansive? Place a hand over your ribs and take a very deep breath feeling your chest rise and your rib cage expand. Exhale slowly and smoothly. Try taking five deep and relatively slow breaths observing the feel of the air entering your body, the rise and fall of your chest, and the full expansion of your lungs. Notice if you are able to let go of a little of your body tension on the exhalation. Try to make these breaths as smooth as possible and do not pause after your inhalation or exhalation. In other words, do not hold your breath. Notice how your body feels after five deep breaths. Do you feel a little calmer and more relaxed?
You may also want to experiment with counting slowly as you inhale and exhale. Are the inhalation and exhalation about the same? With practice over time, try extending the length of your inhalation and exhalation working to make them longer, smoother, and about equal. You can also focus on a word or phrase that helps you to relax. For example, you could focus on breathing in calm and exhaling while letting go of tension. The beauty of this simple exercise is that you can practice it anywhere and anytime. Try taking three to five deep breaths at a stop light, in line at the grocery store, before you have to have that difficult talk, or after a stressful day. The more you practice, the greater the results. Obviously, just breathing deeply will not solve our bigger challenges in life, but it can help us to feel calmer and more clear-headed in the process.