We’ve got good news: stress is not an entirely bad thing. Feeling stressed out is actually perfectly normal and experts say it can even be helpful. It fuels our drive to work and motivates us to stay focused. Meeting deadlines and acing tests (or passing tests, no judgment ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) wouldn’t be possible without a little bit o’ stress. Don’t take my word for it though, a study from the University of Berkeley, revealed moderate levels of stress improve cognitive function.
However, too much of it is harmful and can negatively impact your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. An “unhealthy” amount of stress can lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, heart attacks… the list goes on. No need to stress though (sorry), it can be managed before getting out of control. All you have to do is breathe.
Breathing exercises are arguably the best way to relieve stress. They cost nothing and you can take them anywhere. Here are the secrets behind their magic.
Deep and focused breathing evokes what experts call the Relaxation Response, a physical state of deep rest that changes the way you react to stress. The term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute and author of the book, “The Relaxation Response.” It allows you to approach stressful or threatening situations with a clearer mind. Essentially it’s the opposite of the fight-or-flight response.
Fight-or-flight is a natural reaction which occurs in our body when we are faced with a perceived threat. It also happens when we are subjected to abnormal amounts of stress. It’s a normal physiological response that is designed to protect us from harm. Our blood pressure rises as well as our heart rate and breath, as adrenaline courses through our system enabling us to flee quickly from a dangerous situation.
As much as we may like to, we can’t run away or “flee” from all our problems. This is where the Relaxation Response comes into play and helps counteract the physiological effects of fight-or-flight.
The claim that conscious breathing reduces stress is heavily supported by research. A study titled, “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect, and Stress in Healthy Adults” discovered that breathing exercises can improve sustained attention, a critical factor in maintaining performance over a period of time. The same study found after 20 sessions of breathing relaxation training, participants displayed lower levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that the brain releases in response to stress and too much of it is associated with anxiety and depression.
Here are some straightforward breathing exercises that are certified by the American Institute of Stress:
The Quieting Response technique involves visualization and the entire exercise only takes six seconds! This is perfect for anyone on the go.
Step 1: “Smile inwardly” with your eyes and mouth and release the tension in your shoulders.
Step 2: Imagine holes in the bottom of your feet and as you take a breath, visualize hot air flowing through these holes moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs.
Step 3: Relax your muscles sequentially as the hot air moves through your body.
Step 4: When you exhale reverse the visualization so you “see” hot air coming out the same holes in your feet.
Step 5: Repeat whenever you need to feel calm.
The Sudarshan Kriya or SKY technique uses the natural rhythms of breath which harmonizes one’s body, mind, and emotions. The name of this exercise means “proper vision by purifying action” and it is a three-part breath cycle that can take time to master. However, once you get used to it, practicing it daily will be welcomed and a breeze.
The first cycle of Sudarshan Kriya involves relaxed in-and-out breaths of equal duration. The second involves deeper exhales that are twice as long as the inhales and the final stage involves deeper inhalations that are twice as long as the exhalation. One session of a Sudarshan Kriya is around 45 minutes. You can practice it any time of the day but make sure to not do it within two hours of eating.
The Teddy Bear Breathing technique is a great breathing exercise for kids.
Step 1: Lie on your back.
Step 2: Place one hand on your chest and place your favorite teddy bear on your belly button.
Step 3: Close your eyes and relax your whole body.
Step 4: Breath in slowly through your nose. Your teddy bear should slowly rise, but your chest should not.
Step 5: Repeat a few times, until you feel relaxed.
Adults are also welcome to try this method (with or without your favorite bear).
For more breathing tips and meditation exercises head over to BOLDFISH Mind. Among other amazing podcasts, you’ll find a three-part series guided by Dean Yasuda. Dean is a certified breathing coach by the Hendricks Institute, founded by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks who studied breathing for over 40 years. In just a few minutes you will learn how to relax and de-stress.
Here are ways to incorporate breathing exercises into your daily routine:
Breathing exercises are an easy and efficient way to live a less stressful life. It’s important to accept minor stresses as they come and realize that there is a benefit in feeling a little pressure every now and then. But when you begin to feel overwhelmed having these breathing techniques in your back pocket can be a secret weapon.