Breathing Through Stress

Like it or not, we all know what it feels like to be under pressure. Whether it’s a tax deadline, or difficult colleague, a sibling or a spouse, stress is a natural part of life.


However, for many, especially those living in London, stress is becoming the normal state of being. We’re so accustomed to feeling stressed that we’ve forgotten what it is like to relax, to breathe. Feeling excessively overwhelmed and long term stress can lead to many mental health problems, including insomnia, anxiety, depression and cardiovascular disease.


One of the most effective ways to counteract this sense of overwhelm and reduce the negative impact of stress on our wellbeing is with our breath. A regular practice of even the most simple breathing techniques can reduce stress and anxiety, increase focus and concentration, enhance your sleep and connect you to a space of quiet calm were you can listen to your intuition with clarity.


Now it might sound strange if I were to say to you that most of us don’t know how to breathe correctly. But it’s true. It’s amazing that we breathe every second, every day, every moment of our life without much conscious effort from our behalf. It gives our mind the space to think, create and solve. But it does mean that we aren’t aware of our breathing habits. Perhaps you only ever breathe into the chest. Or maybe you hold your breath throughout the day. When we breathe mindfully we learn to recognise these patterns, what they mean and how we can best respond. With regular practice, and, with time, you’ll be able to notice when you’re unintentionally breathing shallowly or retaining your breath. This is known as breath awareness and can be a powerful instrument towards making positive change.


Breathing techniques and meditations encourage you to breathe easily and smoothly. When we are stressed, anxious or physically tense our breath is more likely to be shallow and erratic. Take for instance, hearing some bad news, or being caught off guard. Your response is a sharp inhalations, a gasp and moment of breath retention. These patterns stimulate what is known as the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. The mind and body are awoken, alert and prepared for action.


Every time you allow a short or shallow breath, you are training this to be your normal breathing pattern. Like anything, changing deeply rooted habits takes time and consistent practice, but it is possible and totally worth it!


Any breathing exercise that offers an extended exhale naturally counters this effect, activating the parasympathetic nervous system instead, known as the rest and digest response. When you breathe in deeply, rather than taking shallow breaths, you naturally inhale more oxygen which leads to less tension, less shortness of breath and less anxiety. This relaxation reduces the effect that stress can have on your mind and body. People who are able to bring themselves into this state of being find that they have increased sense of resilience to adversity and difficult situations.


The Extended Exhale:

This breath practice benefits the mind and body by relaxing the nervous system through an extended exhale. It is great for people who struggle with sleep, anxiety, nerves or anytime you need to calm down quickly. All it takes is a few minutes of conscious, mindful breathing to help restore a feeling of calm to your being.

  • Come to a comfortable position, preferably seated with a long spine.
  • Close your eyes of soften your gaze.
  • Become aware of your bodily sensations on the chair, cushion, floor beneath you. Notice how you are feeling physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically.
  • When you are ready, begin to mentally count your inhale for four.
  • Pause at the top of your inhale (without holding the breath, just a moment between the breaths)
  • As you exhale, count to seven.
  • Pause (again, without holding the breath, just a moment between the breaths)
  • Repeat this cycle for one minute.
  • You can increase the count to match your breath, just as long as the exhale is at least two counts longer.
  • Let go of the counting and observe the breath for 6 rounds.
  • Notice how you feel now.
  • Expand your awareness into the body, the room.
  • Open your eyes / or drifting to sleep if before bed

*CAUTION* don’t push yourself on the length of the exhales. Even a slightly longer exhale activates the relaxation response. Stop if you feel light headed or nauseous.

So next time you feel overwhelmed or under pressure, try out this simple breath exercise and see how you feel after.  Let me know how you get on too or if you have any questions! Be sure to carve out some time to relax and take care of yourself each day—even just 10 to 15 minutes per day can improve your ability to handle life's stressors.


Much Love

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