How often have you heard people say take “deep breath” to calm someone down? It sounds a little patronizing doesn’t it? Actually, that breath could be the best thing you do for yourself all day. When you are upset or stressed, do you find yourself holding your breath? Most people do not even notice it, but they actually stop breathing when nervous, stressed or upset.
When we become stressed, our sympathetic nervous system becomes stimulated. The sympathetic nervous system, if you remember Facebook from anatomy or biology 101, is the “fight or flight” response to stress or danger. When it is chronically stimulated, our body can be stripped of nutrients and can create imbalances in our brain chemistry. Prolonged exposure to stress can also lead to heart problems, high blood pressure, increased vulnerability to illness, depression, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, anxiety, relationship problems and a continued reduction in the ability to cope with stress.
So, what can be done about this? Take a deep breath! Research shows that deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which releases hormones to counteract the effects of chronic stress by decreasing blood pressure and heart rate. This balances the equilibrium in our body and promotes an overall feeling of wellbeing. The National Institute of Health studied groups of anxious people and found that shallow breathing increased anxiety, while slow deep breaths decreased anxiety. This makes sense because stress creates hyperventilation which then creates more physical stress and the physical stress creates more emotional pressure.
How do you breathe? There are many forms of meditation and breathing techniques and they are not all a good fit for everyone. The most common techniques are:
Relaxation Breathing: I find it helpful to start with a structured breathing technique to help clients who have never done these exercises. In this exercise, we begin with five deep breaths in the nose and out the mouth. Then, for at least five breaths, I have them picture the breath coming in their body. I walk them through picturing the breath coming through their nostrils, sinuses, throat, and chest. I have them picture and feel their chest and belly expand before picturing the breath leave, going up their chest into their throat and out their mouth. After several breaths, I ask them to picture relaxation coming in with each breath, picture the relaxation entering each part of their body the breath touches. Then they picture tension leaving with each exhalation. As we continue picturing the relaxation entering, I focus on specific parts of the body that will relax like the shoulders dropping and their muscles becoming soft and heavy. After the exercise, we discuss how they felt during the experience. I ask them about their thoughts and almost every client states that they could only think about the breath. Even clients that struggle with this identify that it is very difficult to focus on the exercise and their external thoughts, so we practice bringing ourselves back to the breath. This particular exercise can be incredibly helpful with difficulty sleeping.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This was developed in the 1920s and quickly gained recognition for the ability to reduce anxiety. In this technique, you close your eyes and sequentially tense and relax muscles. Most people start at the feet and work up to the head, moving through each muscle group along the way. As they tense, they contract each muscle for several seconds. I like to have clients tense as they slowly take a deep breath in and relax as they exhale. Deep breathing is a key component in this exercise. I also like to spend extra time in areas where people tend to hold more tension, like the shoulders and upper back. I finish the exercise with tensing all muscles in the body at the same time and relaxing at one time, again coupled with deep breaths.
Guided Imagery: This is based on the concept that there is a connection between mind and body. Guided imagery utilized your senses to imagine yourself in a more relaxed state and therefore have a sense of control in our emotional state. In this skill, you ask the client to imagine a safe and relaxed place. You can use music, but music should be chosen carefully because it can have a profound effect on the experience. I start with five deep breaths in the nose and out the mouth. Then, I ask them to imagine a relaxing place. I take them through their senses of sight, tactile sensation, hearing, smell and taste in this place. I ask them to think about whether these sensations are new or familiar, what about this place feels relaxing, what they notice about themselves while in this place. After we finish the exercise, we debrief. I ask them to describe their process and answer the questions I asked during the exercise. After this, some clients find it helpful to keep something handy that reminds them of this place, especially something that can be visible in stressful places like work.
While breathing is not the answer to everything, we certainly have so much to gain from focusing on our breath. The key here is to practice the skills before we are stressed or anxious so that we can utilize them when we are feeling overwhelmed. If you were able to take the time to breathe for even a few minutes each day, what do you think you would notice? So, the next time someone tells you to take a deep breath, take them up on it!