3 simple ways to breathe through your stress
You know the pain and frustration of living life under a cloud of stress. You feel on edge, irritable, unable to concentrate, and snappy.
And you stress eat. You know, the bag of candy you bought, promising yourself you’d just eat a couple of… and now the bag’s empty? Or the pizza you ordered because you’re super stressed from work – the one that should have lasted you 2-3 meals… but it didn’t even last 2-3 hours.
So not cool.
Not only can long-term stress cause you mental and emotional pain, but it impacts your body too. Your weight might suffer, your digestion can get iffy, and any niggles you might have become ten times worse.
It’s no fun and it can do real, long term damage to your health – not to mention your relationship with food.
You can’t actually be “stress-free”
Articles about stress management usually tell you to reduce the stressors in your life. In other words, get rid of the things causing the stress.
This is great advice for the stressy things that we have control over – like watching the nightly news, or reading YouTube comments – but trying to be “stress-free” is impractical (and by that, I really mean: impossible).
A little short-term stress is GOOD for you.
Stress can be that little extra energy that helps you meet the deadline, or the wee bit of anxiety that keeps you on your toes on a first date. This stress is needed. It helps you grow and perform at your best.
You’re made for this kind of short-burst stress. So we not only CAN’T remove our all stressors, we don’t want to.
What about long-term stress?
Which is really what we’re focussed on here.
This is the kind of day-in-day-out stress you live with – it doesn’t get resolved and just hangs around wearing down your happiness and willpower.
Some long-term stressors are self-chosen or self-inflicted and you should think seriously about how to get them out of your life. Things like negative self-talk, relationships that don’t really serve your best interests, or events in life that you could see in a more positive light.
These are chronic stressors you might be able to reduce.
But you’re never going to get them all.
Which is why it’s super important to build your resilience and coping techniques.
One such technique is breathing.
This is a crazy awesome way to deal with stress and will help you not only feel better right away, but can help reduce the damage that stress does to your health and wellbeing.
Breathing: Your secret weapon
By learning to breathe through stress, you can transform your stress response. You can, quite literally, change your tension into relaxation.
“Ok”, I hear you say, “I’m always breathing, but I’m still stressed – what gives?”
Well, you’re probably doing it wrong.
You’re breathing wrong.
Apparently, not knowing how to breathe properly is very common.
“For many of us, deep breathing seems unnatural. There are several reasons for this. For one, body image has a negative impact on respiration in our culture. A flat stomach is considered attractive, so women (and men) tend to hold in their stomach muscles. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow “chest breathing” seem normal, which increases tension and anxiety”.
The last thing we want to do is increase tension and anxiety!
This is why, as the American Institute of Stress says,
“The relaxation response is not lying on the couch or sleeping but a mentally active process that leaves the body relaxed, calm, and focused”.
Breathing can be a mentally active process that does this.
How does breathing change stress?
Calm, deep breathing activates the relaxation part of your nervous system (called the parasympathetic nervous system).
By breathing deeply, you mimic a relaxed state, and by doing so, actually relax.
It’s a type of biofeedback – info you get from your own body that helps you regulate what’s going on. By consciously changing your breath you can mediate your physical response, which also affects how you subjectively experience stress. Basically, you feel better and relax more.
Breath + stress research
Harvard heath says that, “Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.”
Similarly, these researchers found that by increasing participants attention to their breathing, the breaths became more stable and reflective of a relaxed state. Also, these researchers reported that abdominal breathing techniques really helped stressed out breast cancer patients feel better and improve their quality of life
Ok, science class is over for today. Now to the practical stuff!
How do you breathe right?
Different studies use different methods, so find what works for you.
Here are three of my personal favorites.
Method 1: Deep breathing.
Is pretty much what it sounds like.
Find somewhere to sit comfortably – chair, sofa, cross legged on the floor – with a straight back and your head evenly balanced. Pretend someone has a string attached to the crown of your head and is lightly encouraging you to sit up tall and straight by pulling it. Place you hands comfortably on your thighs.
Now breath in slowly – not to 100% of your lung capacity, that can be a little stressful, but to about 75-80%. Try to fill your belly space with air. Your tummy should be moving when you deep breathe. Now, hold that breath briefly, then exhale slowly, deflating your belly as you go. Repeat 10 or so times (or more).
If you get dizzy while doing this, that’s ok. Stop for a few breaths and just breathe normally. You might need to just pause a little longer after you’ve inhaled – the dizziness tends to come from getting a little more oxygen than you’re used to.
Method 2: 4-7-8 breathing.
This breathing technique is so relaxing, you can use it to help you fall asleep faster.
You breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds with the tip of your tongue lightly touching just behind your upper front teeth. Check out this video from Dr. Weil for a great demo.
Method 3: Alternate nostril breathing.
This is a breathing technique I learned from yoga and I love it. I’ve made a short video explaining how to do it, because it can be a little tricky to explain in text. So, check me out sticking my fingers up my nose on camera.
Ok, there we go – three breathing techniques to help you cope better with the stress in your life. I hope they help you like they’ve helped me.