- Karen Stoner, LMT
Breathing for relaxation
Stress is everywhere. It can affect us in so many ways. Stress increases cortisol levels, and high cortisol can make you irritable, distracted, and prevent you from sleeping. Yet one of the most simple things that we can do to help us relax and get rid of stress is something we are supposed to do without thinking - breathing.
Stress can make our breath more shallow, less complete, and less useful due to the stress distracting our attention. Controlled, deep breathing can help us calm our minds, our nervous systems, and help stabilize our blood pressure, and heart rates. While breathing doesn't completely remove the cortisol brought on by stress, breathing can help your system calm down enough that the cortisol isn't produced as quickly, and gets eliminated more easily.
There are many breathing exercises and techniques that can help you use your breath to reduce stress. Some are long and intense, and others can integrate into other forms of relaxation such as yoga or meditation. The video posted above discusses just 3 exercises that you can do quickly, easily, and in any situation.
1. Square Breathing - Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, then hold empty lungs for a count of 4. Repeat as many times as needed.
This is handy when trying to re-focus after getting distracted or being unable to concentrate.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing - Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, slowly exhale for a count of 8. Repeat as many times as needed. *The first time you try this one, you may need to take a few "normal" breaths before starting the cycle over - the first time you do that 8-count exhale, it can make you feel like you need a few breaths to re-stabilize yourself, but the second time, you'll have adapted.
This is an excellent exercise to do when trying to fall asleep. It helps to signal the brain to calm down, and helps the body accept that it is safe, and time to be calm and rested.
3. Number Breathing - Inhale as long and as deep as you need to, then as you exhale, say the word of a number, starting to count at 1, and breathing/counting to 5, then start over at 1 and repeat as many times as needed. *The reason you don't go past 5 is to regain your focus. If you just zone out, the mind wanders and "auto-pilot" takes over and you'll suddenly find yourself on 8 - then you'll realize you need to regain focus and think about your breathing.
I personally recommend this one to help people with anxiety or when they need to calm down in a tense situation. I've recommended it to students who are having nerves before performing, or are on the verge of stressing out or panicking over something. Very helpful for re-centering and calming, bringing focus back to yourself and a calm place.
The great thing about breathing exercises is that since breathing is something we do all the time, you can do breathing exercises anywhere. You don't need to make a separate time to set up a meditation area, wait for complete silence, and breathe to get rid of your stress - although is you can do that, AWESOME! These breathing exercises can actually be done anywhere, any time. Stuck in traffic? Something go wrong at work? Dinner burned? Breathe. Just stop for a few seconds and breathe. A little bit of breath can do a lot of good.