There’s no doubt about it, chronic stress is on the rise in today’s fast paced environment. Between politics, global affairs, work demands, the pressure of managing a household, and an addiction to our electronic devices, stress has infiltrated all areas of daily life—and it's not slowing down anytime soon.
One way to think of stress is as blocked energy—something that needs to shift and move out of your body to be at ease. Physically, these energy blocks can manifest themselves as a stiff neck, a locked jaw, headaches, digestive issues, back pain, and skin breakouts. Mentally and emotionally, symptoms can include insomnia, anxiety, restlessness, difficulty focusing, anger, unexplained tears, memory lapses, self-judgment, and panic attacks.
When these are left unchecked, the symptoms like anxiety, depression, adrenal fatigue, weight gain, and IBS, just to name a few—will wreak havoc on your health and happiness. Yet, it’s not enough to simply say, "eat better”,”exercise” or “meditate”.These tools are not always sufficient to manage the root stressors in your daily life. Instead, you need practical, powerful strategies that you can put into play to create calm, alleviate anxiety, and power-up with positive vibes.
Is stress always bad?
You need to see your stress for what it is: a message from your body that something needs to change, so pay attention to it. We can’t always control sources of stress in our lives, but we change how we react to them. The good news is this: The human body is actually designed to experience and handle stress, which is exactly why our bodies react to it so strongly.
It’s important to remember that your stress is trying to protect you. Chronic stress is a symptom of having an unresolved problem, an overly demanding schedule, or unhealthy lifestyle habits. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see people treating stress as the problem, often through medication, alcohol, or food abuse.
With some practice, we have the power to learn to use certain elements of stress to our advantage (for example, the fact that stress keeps us more alert and attentive), while better controlling other negative reactions (like digestion problems or giving in to cravings for unhealthy foods).
Stress signals that you need to put on the brakes or do something differently. The reality is that you can only live in a state of stress for so long before it affects your health, happiness, and relationships. So instead of always relying on stress management strategies, take the opportunity to identify and address the root cause of your stress. After all, it’s our reaction to what happens in our life that shapes our experiences, not the things themselves.
Do I breathe correctly ?
Breathing through your mouth after strenuous exercise is normal. Other than that, short, shallow breaths from the mouth over time can produce adverse effects. Shallow breathing, among other reasons, is a result of poor posture. Over time this can contribute to back and neck pain. Constant breathing from the mouth also alters the pH of your saliva, making it more acidic and removes some of its antibacterial effects.
If you are stressed or anxious you tend to take small, shallow breaths from the mouth. Chronic mouth breathing activates the “fight-or-flight response,” which makes you more likely to feel anxious and stressed. This kind of breathing does not aid stress relief. In fact it has the potential to prolong feelings of anxiety and stress, resulting in chest tightness, heart palpitations and insomnia.
Healthy breathing -Diaphragmatic, deep breathing (preferably through the nose) is a healthy way of breathing and can provide immediate benefits for stress relief. Diaphragmatic breathing allows for longer and fuller breaths, allowing more oxygen to reach the lower parts of the lung. Diaphragmatic (a.k.a belly) breathing provides stress relief, works to slow the heart beat, lower blood pressure, soothe the nervous system and deliver oxygen to the blood cells.
How does Breathwork help with stress relief?
While stress has a bad reputation in the health industry, modern research is finally catching up to what ancient Eastern traditions have known for centuries: changing our breathing pattern relieves stress and leads to a healthier state of being.
Breathwork is a term for various practices in which the conscious control of breathing is intended to influence mental, emotional and physical states. Some techniques like Holotropic, Transformational - or Conscious Connected Breathing, is being increasingly used in the therapeutic treatment of anxiety and stress disorders. These techniques are powerful, spiritually oriented approaches to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology and Eastern spiritual practices.
It’s amazing that something as simple as a few deep breaths can provide immediate benefits for stress relief. Along with that, the power of the breath also produces a number of health benefits, including the activation of life force energy, “Chi/Qi” or “Prana”
There are many ways to relieve stress that you have probably tried. Exercise, a hot bath, or calling a friend to tell them about your day. These are all great tools, but conscious breathing is an even quicker way to change the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) in your body.
Simple Breathwork techniques effectively train the body to better handle stressful situations. Learning to breathe consciously is as simple as placing your attention on your breath. Try noticing how you are breathing right now. Does your breath feel smooth, deep and full or tight and shallow?
When we’re stressed our lungs take in less oxygen. This causes the body to tighten. When we’re anxious or worried the breathing pattern is usually pretty fast which turns on the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight response that turns on our stress hormones. Over time this excess cortisol (stress hormone) production is taxing on the body and can lead to fatigue and other health issues such as anxiety and depression.
The opposite is true in a relaxed state where our breathing patterns are slower and deeper. Breathing with awareness engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the feeling of rest and digest. This has a positive impact on our health by keeping our stress hormones in check and quieting busy minds.
The beauty of conscious breathing is that it is free, can be practiced anywhere, and is one of the most direct tools for creating a different relationship to stress and improving well being. In as little as a couple of minutes, you can bring your mind and body into alignment and empower yourself to stay present with whatever you are going through.
Choose one of the techniques and try it for a few minutes every day for the next week. Over time and with practice you will know how long you need to do a particular breathwork technique to feel centered and calm.
Some breathing techniques to relieve stress and anxiety
1. Extended exhales - To regulate anxiety
Making your exhalation a few counts longer than your inhale is a quick way to calm yourself down. The slower you breathe the more your mind will relax, due to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system This is an excellent technique for balancing emotions, quieting the mind, and regulating anxiety. If you ever have issues falling asleep, this is a great practice to try in bed.
Sit up tall in a chair or on the floor. You can also practice this lying down. Close your eyes to take the focus inward. Breathe in and out through the nose for a few rounds to settle in. When you are ready, make each exhale 2-3 counts longer than the inhale (if that’s too difficult, simply make both breaths an equal length). Continue in this pattern until you are completely relaxed and calm. Start with 2 minutes any time you need some restoration.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation - to relax physically and mentally
In this technique, you breathe in as you tense a muscle group and breathe out as you release it. Progressive muscle relaxation helps you relax physically and mentally.
Lie comfortably on the floor.
Take a few deep breaths to relax.
Breathe in. Tense the muscles of your feet.
Breathe out. Release the tension in your feet.
Breathe in. Tense your calf muscles.
Breathe out. Release the tension in your calves.
Work your way up your body. Tense each muscle group. This includes your legs, bum, belly, chest, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, and face.
3. Box Breath - to feel grounded / relieve anger / improve focus
Box breath or equal parts breath is also called Sama Vritti in Sanskrit and yoga practice, which translates to square breathing (equal on all sides, with four sides).
Inhale for three or four counts and feel energized and rejuvenated by the breath.
Hold for three or four counts at the top, become aware of the sensation.
Exhale for three counts, let go, release.
And hold for three counts on empty, feeling the stillness.
Do at least five rounds of this, more if you need to, in a quiet, calm space.
Tips for better breathing
Reminding yourself to stand or sit with a straight back encourages deeper breathing by opening up the chest. This in turn will allow you to be more conscious of your breathing. For stress relief, remind yourself to take longer, fuller breaths when anxious to soothe the nervous system, reduce the heart beat and calm the body. The results of this form of stress relief are immediate and the effects will resonate across your body.