Singers from Faith Hill to Anna Nalick, from Eddie Vedder to Alexi Murdoch croon about the benefits of just breathing, but while we may be keen on huffing out the words of their latest songs, we don’t always embrace the message behind the lyrics. Research shows us, however, that focusing on our breath and how we use each inhale and exhale can help reduce stress and in turn, enhance the quality of our lives.
While our natural “fight or flight” response can help protect us when in danger, many of us overuse the response because we’re too stressed in our daily lives.
When our body’s fight or flight response is triggered, epinephrine in our system raises the hair on our arms, squeezes sweat out of our pores, and speeds up our heart rate. In situations where we are truly in danger, this response helps us to appropriately react to take ourselves away from danger. However, fight or flight can also be triggered by less critical, stress-inducing situations: financial worries, relationship issues and undue pressures from school or work.
An overabundance of physiological fight or flight stress responses can be detrimental to our health, leading to immune deficiencies, high blood pressure, anxiety or depression. An immediate response to these health issues might be to visit a doctor and get a prescription. But would you believe one of our greatest tools is right at our fingertips—or, more accurately, at our lips?
Our parasympathetic nervous system slows our heart rate and helps us relax. When evoked, it can help relieve the symptoms of stress. One way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is by focusing on the breath, breathing deeply and fully. When we practice deep, focused belly breathing, our brains receive a message to relax—a message then relayed to our bodies, which react by letting go of anxiety and panic.
Practicing focused breathing can help us use this technique as a tool when we are feeling anxious or stressed.
- Sit in a comfortable position, supported, if you choose, with a cushion or blanket. Gently close your eyes.
- As you breathe in through your nose, picture the breath moving into your belly. Allow your belly to expand outward like a balloon filling up with air.
- Breathe out completely through your nostrils or gently parted lips, pulling your navel toward your spine to ensure that the full breath leaves your body.
- Repeat this breathing for several minutes, focusing on filling the belly and then, letting everything go.
In a culture where flat stomachs are prized, where we tense our stomach muscles to “strengthen our abs,” deep belly breathing feels awkward. But shallow breaths lingering in our chests make us feel short of breath; they can add to anxiety rather than relaxing us.
If you have trouble focusing on the practice of focused breath, it can be helpful to use a relaxing visual image or a calming word connected with each breath. Counting can help return focus to the breath. In fact, some experts believe that relaxation is facilitated when the exhale is longer than the inhale.
Chicagoan Lynn McGuire recently practiced focused breath as she underwent an MRI. Fearful of enclosed spaces, she found that returning focus to her breath helped her relax when the situation left her feeling anxious.
“I found myself panicked when I opened my eyes and felt closed in. I remembered a teacher telling me about breathing in and counting to 3, then breathing out and counting to 5 to reduce my anxiety. This worked perfectly. I was able to complete an hour-long MRI with minimal anxiety.”
The way we breathe affects our whole body, more than we may even realize. Knowing we have such a powerful tool within ourselves, and understanding how to use that internal tool, can help us prevent tension and stress and, if they do arise, to nip them in the bud.
Once you’re comfortable with belly breathing, more advanced breathing exercises can be found here.
Reviewed July 26, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Shannon Koehle