Learn instant stress management with this simple breathing technique
02 Feb

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stress management breathing

Do you stress yourself a lot? Difficult situations during your work-day, or even in privet life? The tension around your abdomen and chest, a sudden piercing pain around the heart, leaving it pumping like you’ve just ran a marathon? Shallow breathing, sweating often, lack of concentration, losing focus, feeling irritable, feeling constantly tired, not being able to sleep…

Or are you not even aware that you are under chronic stress? Does it all feel natural to be on the edge, push yourself as far as you go, until a sudden unexplainable disease strikes, which you are able to keep at bay with ample medication, so you can push yourself to your limits once again? Are you proud of being able to make your body and mind work overtime?

Stress has many guises and symptoms you may never associate with it directly. Yet, only by controlling your breathing, you may keep your stress at bay, until you find a solution to eradicate it completely. If you want to know how, just read on.  (Or if you are really impatient, you can click here to jump right to the practical part. After all, it can be quite stressful, having to read through a lot of text, when all you want is instant help.) 😉

Our 21st century plague

Stress is a chronic disease, an aberration of the all to well-known fight or flight response of our nervous systems, an inheritance from more a dangerous, yet slower time, when life was more  predictable in many ways, when the instant response to immediate danger meant difference between survival and death.

Today, the danger that once lurked in the bushes seem to be past. We live a much safer life, with food readily available, no predators out to hunt us down and (usually) no rival tribes or clans trying to exterminate our seed (unless you live in a conflict zone). Our body’s responses however seem to have changed little. Whenever we face a perceived danger, we get a high dose of adrenalin and other stress related hormones in our blood, causing the heart and respiratory rate rates rise. We breathe more rapidly, while our hearts pound away faster, pumping our muscles full of blood, and providing them with fresh oxygen. Our nervous systems become spiked, ready to react, ready to fight back or run away, all in a vain attempt to save our lives.

But the nature of such dangers have evolved much faster than the natural evolution of humankind would have been able to follow. The danger of losing a job, not being able to pay the bills,  having to speak in front of people, being rejected by society or peers, finding out unpleasant truths, or just manoeuvring in the “politics” of a large corporation we work for, represent more psychological or existential dangers, than physical threats. Yet our bodies will react the same.

This strain on our nerves, the rush of blood and adrenalin, never being followed with a real physical outburst, where these pre-applied surpluses of energy would be put to good use, does indeed accumulate inside. It is most unnatural for us to put our systems into the readiness, only to remain there and never physically act. The consequences of this are far graver than we like to admit. Stress kills more people than terrorists…

Giving your body what it craves

One naturally good idea is to put our bodies through some sort of strain, physical exertion of any kind, make good use of all that accumulated energy and let it work in our favour. Did you ever feel the relief after leaving the gym? It is not just the runners high. It is true, your brain secrets endorphins into your blood, as a response to exercise, but reduced stress levels play a part in feeling so much better. You have just given your body what it craves. It has been preparing for it all day, making you constantly stay on your edge, so that your muscles can pump away, you can run, you can fight, you can exert yourself. When it happens, you feel relieved.

It is a great idea to exercise, or move in any way. Apart from helping with chronic stress, it will have many more health benefits, significantly impacting your quality of life. Yet there are situations, when exercise, or physical exertion just does not work. What if you are unable to exercise, what if you need an instant solution, because the acute stress has reached an unbearable height?

Whether or not you are aware of how much stress you are under every day (it is worth watching yourself and evaluating your body’s reactions, it would help you identify problem areas in your life), there will be situations when you’ll become instantly aware of it being stressful. Say you’ve just been handed your 1 month’s notice from your job you thought secure. Or you’ve just received news of a personal loss, eg. your fiancé broke up with you and ran away with the gardener named Alejandro, whose evil twin brother José is plotting to end the happy marriage of your ex-wife’s mother’s brother, in order to get his hands on the heritage of your late uncle’s only son, who has an obscure connection to María, who did not even appear in the plot as of yet. Or you just watch too many Mexican serials and feel for all the characters equally. (Imagine the stress of that!)

Whatever the cause the symptoms will be the same: You become suddenly nervous, you are aware of your breath becoming shallow, your heart beating faster. And if this happens in your office, at a meeting, during the family dinner or on the hacienda, you may not be able to run away and exercise.

How breathing can help

After the stressfully long introduction, let us jump to the point: The solution in such situations, when you need an instant, readily available aid to manage your suddenly overwhelming stress is in your breath. Your respiratory rate is closely connected to the state of your nervous system in many different ways. While it is worth your while to read and understand how it all works, if you are not interested in how the body operates, but want to enjoy the benefits, click here to skip to the practical advice.). the following short introduction is, of course, only a sneak peek intom human anatomy. The greater picture is farm more complicated than that, but this should you a head start in understanding what will follow:

Breath is both voluntary and involuntary

Your breathing is your only automatic bodily process, that you can manipulate willingly. What this means is, you can take a deep breath, whenever you want. You can choose to breathe faster or slower, deeper or shallower, hold your breath (up to a point), change the length of each phase (inhale or exhale) at will. Yet if you stop paying attention, your breathing will continue automatically, you do not need to”switch on” some bodily mechanism for this to happen. Your rate of respiration, the depth and length of each breath drawn will then be controlled by your nervous system, in a way you are not even aware of.

Your breathing is unique in this regard. You can try the same with for example your heat-beat, your digestion, or the function of your liver. For most scenarios, your body does not even have the nervous connections to make you aware of the output of sensory receptors that monitor such life functions.

Both your breathing and your heart rate are controlled in a similar area of your brain

Both the cardiovascular center (controlling heart-rate) and the respiratory center (controlling breathing) are located in the brain stem, or medulla oblongata. At first, it may seem of little significance, or even a coincidence (rest assured, in a highly organised system such as the human body, there are literally no coincidences). The medulla oblonagata also contains the vasomotor center, controlling blood pressure, and centers responsible for many reflex functions, such as vomiting, swallowing, etc.

The main significance of this  is that all life functions in your body are not separated, but intricately interconnected. For example, your blood pressure can affect your heart rate, which in turn affects your respiratory rate. If your heart beats faster, your body will need more oxygen, so you will automatically start breathing faster. If, on the other hand, you start slowing your breaths willingly, the oxygen levels in your blood will drop, while the carbon-dioxide levels will rise, causing your hear to beat slower in turn. (To put it really simply.)

I hope you start to see where this is going. You have an indirect control over your heart rate by adjusting your breathing. The significance of the respiratory and cardiac centers being in the same area of the brain, is that the effect is practically instantaneous. In other words, With manipulating your breath, you technically stimulate the area of your brain, responsible for regulating how fast or slow you heart will beat. And slowing down your heart-beats seems like an excellent counter-measure to treat the symptoms of stress.

Treating the symptoms effectively

Of course treating the symptoms may only be a temporary solution. In the long term you want to move more regularly, to really use up the accumulated extra energy and find the cause of your stress and eradicate it from your life, or it will eventually kill you. But when your stress takes control, you may not be able to easily do so.

Whatever the long term solution you are after, it helps to be able to keep the symptoms at bay. Whether it is sports, meditation, or just examining your life closer (the most difficult of the all), you will need to be able to calm yourself first. Fortunately, as seen above, your breathing holds the key, to calm yourself quite easily and effortlessly and it could prove quite surprisingly effective at that.

A simple breathing exercise to help you manage your stress levels

The bottom line is, you want to learn to control your breathing. Whether you have treated it as something that just happens to you, or you have been engaging in an activity that needs a fine control over your breath, such as sports or martial arts, the below simple breathing exercise will prove to be a great addition to your self-management techniques, so read on. The next 4 points will guide you through the basic steps:

1. Correcting your posture

Most people never pay much attention to their breathing at all. It is something that seems to just happens to be there, we do not give it much consideration. Yet, you are now invited to do just that: Take a moment to observe your breathing.

  • Sit comfortably, as you have been sitting until now, do not change your posture, try not to control your breathing, but observe it closely.

  • Is your breathing deep or shallow?

  • Do you breath smoothly, or staccato?

  • Now try to take a deep breath: Did you experience any difficulty in drawing a deep breath, or was it natural and easy?

  • Next, put your left palm on your chest, just over the breast-bone, or where you think your heart is, and the right palm onto the centre of your belly.

  • Observe your hands as you breathe: Which hand is moving, the left, the right or both?

    You will now change your position. Sit tall, with your back as straight as possible, or even better, stand up. Your head, specifically your crown should be high.

  • Draw a deep breath now: Did it become easier?

  • Observe your hands, left on the chest, right on the belly: Which one moves?

    Chances are, your answers were as follows:

  • When you were sitting in your original position, drawing a deep breath was a bit challenging, even if ever so slightly.

  • In this position your left hand, resting over your chest was moving as you breathed, while your right was still, or moving very little.

    When you have changed position, and sat or stood upright, with a better posture, drawing a deep breath must have become easier.

  • When observing your hands in this position, your bottom hand (the right hand), which was on your belly, was probably moving much more noticeably, although this did not necessarily happen.

    The reason for such changes in your breathing is very simple: When you corrected your posture, you were not compressing your lungs and your belly, so the muscles helping your breath could move more freely allowing your lungs to expand more naturally. This will be the posture you want to be in, when practising the below breathing technique.

2. Learn to breathe naturally

As you might have observed above, when watching your hands move, there was a noticeable movement of your chest: It expanded as you inhaled and collapsed while exhaling. This breathing pattern is unfortunately accepted as “normal” and “natural”, while under the circumstances, it simply means an inefficient use of your anatomy.

Breathing happens with the aid of muscles around your lungs. You lungs themselves are like a sponge, they cannot expand and compress by themselves, but as the internal cavity of your ribcage changes its size, the lungs simply follow.

The main muscle you use, or should be using for breathing is your diaphragm, a large dome-shaped muscle, that divides your internal cavity into an upper and lower portion. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts and flattens out, drawing your lungs downwards, making them expand, making you inhale; while as you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes, returning to its original shape, compressing your lungs, making you exhale.  

There are other little muscles, called intercostals, that sit between your ribs, helping the process of breathing. These little muscles basically lift your ribcage to aid the inhalation, making the internal cavity larger so that your lungs can expand further, as they contract. As they relax, the ribcage collapses, helping with the compression of your lungs. This should happen to aid he work of the diaphragm, when there is a need for deeper breathing, such as during sports or physical exertion.

The problem is, that instead of helping the process, due to bad posture, sitting too much and wearing tight clothes, these little helper muscles effectively do most of the work, instead of just helping out. In a resting situations you should very nearly not be using them at all, the diaphragm itself being able to provide enough action to maintain breathing, yet chances are that you have just observed your ribcage rise and collapse, even though you were only sitting.

This leads to ineffective and shallow breathing, which in itself can contribute to heightened stress levels. Remember: your rate of respiration has a direct effect over how fast your heart beats. Shallow breathing means breathing more rapidly, and rapid breaths means a faster beating heart.

To correct this, you should put your hands back where they were when you originally checked yourself, left on your chest and right on your belly.

  • Now inhale, but try to inhale “into your belly”. In practice this should mean pushing your belly out as you inhale.

  • Now exhale and and withdrawing your belly as much as you can.  

Such abdominal movements will help the diaphragm move up and down easier, essentially giving way to your internal organs as they shift upwards and downwards, following the movement of your diaphragm.This of course will render it virtually impossible to constantly maintain the “flat belly” of modern day beauty ideals, but now would be the best time to decide whether you prefer health or appearances. (On the positive side, such exaggerated movement of your belly will be only necessary for the learning phase. Once you have learned to naturally breathe like that, the perceived abdominal movement will be much less articulated.)

We will not yet give this technique a name here. Some people call it abdominal breathing, emphasising that the movement of the abdomen is quite apparent, while others call it diaphragmatic breathing, as your are using mostly your diaphragm to initiate each breath. The author calls this method “simple abdominal breathing”. Two more levels of abdominal breathing (“advanced” and “full”) are introduced, while the term “diaphragmatic breathing” is used to describe a much more advanced breathing method, where the movement of the diaphragm becomes so minimal, that the movement of the abdomen is no longer apparent.

You should strive to make this way of breathing your natural everyday breathing habit. To do so, you should remember it during the day and whenever you remember it, observe yourself. If you catch yourself breathing “into your chest”, just correct your breathing and carry on with whatever you were doing previously. If you do it often and long enough, you will eventually learn (or rather re-learn) such natural way of breathing.

3. Control your breath

Once you are comfortable with breathing the right way, it is time to take control of your breath. As you’ve seen above, the rate of your respiration will have a direct effect on how fast your heart beats. Slowing down your breathing will instantly result in slowing down your heart rate.

  • Start breathing slower and deeper. Make each breath longer than the previous one was. Do this for 10 breaths, inhales and exhales.

Once you are breathing much slower, you can start paying attention to the length of each phase. A little known fact is, that inhalations temporarily excite your body while exhalations have a calming effect. The reasons behind this are manifold: When you inhale, your helper muscles, such as the diaphragm and the intercostals all need to contract, causing a natural excitement inside. Similarly, as you exhale, the relaxation of your muscles naturally leads to the relaxation of other systems.

Another reason is the amount of oxygen and carbon-dioxide in your bloodstream being constantly monitored by your body. As you inhale, the oxygen levels temporarily rise. Higher oxygen levels mean a higher heart-rate, while lower oxygen levels, as is the case during exhalation, coupled with higher carbon-dioxide levels, mean slower heart rate. While the process is dynamic and constantly changing, you can use this to your advantage.

The trick is, to make your breaths uneven, that is, inhale shorter and exhale longer. Shorter inhale phases mean less excitement and lower overall oxygen intake, while longer exhales means longer periods of relaxation with slightly rising CO2 concentration (worry not, it is all within the natural boundaries, your system has a fine mechanism to preventing you from overdoing it).

  • Watch your breathing, inhale deeply, but exhale even deeper.

  • Make each exhale gradually longer, while your inhales should remain the same.

  • Do this until you cannot extend your exhalations any longer.

This will be the rate your breathing should remain at. Ideally your exhales should be nearly double the length of your inhales, but this is not strictly necessary.

Of course when you are really over-excited or stressed out, manipulation your breaths this way might prove less effective, unless supplemented by something that helps to take your mind away from the root cause of your stress:

4. Counting your breaths

You should not really proceed this far, until you have mastered the basic breathing method necessary. Until then, only by concentrating on the right way of breathing will succeed in lowering your stress levels instantaneously. The reasons for this are simple: You are breathing much deeper now, and more consciously. Your breathing rate will have dropped significantly, having a positive effect on your heart-rate. As your heart rate drops, eventually all your body and mind will follow suite and calm down.

Also, by focusing on your breathing technique, you put your mind somewhere else, you brought it here to the present moment, as breathing is something that always happens now. This way, just taking your mind away from the cause of stress you are giving yourself a chance to calm down.

Naturally, with time it will require less and less effort to maintain such breathing technique and it will not be able to occupy your mind any longer, so while you can maintain the correct breathing effortlessly, your mind will be free to wander and keep concentrating of whatever causes your internal stress. The solution for this simple problem is equally simple: You must find a way to keep your mind focussed on your breathing.

While this may sound easy, it can prove really difficult, when you are experiencing stress and excitement. To force your mind to stay where you’d like it to, just start to count your breaths. You might notice the similarity to Zen meditation, where you also often use counting as an aid to maintain your focus. If you see such similarity, you are not at all wrong. What does differentiate this technique from Zen meditation is the way you are counting.

In Zen meditation your purpose is to stay awake and sharp. Counting 1 to 10 helps this by keeping your mind focussed. For now however, your goal will be to calm your mind, instead of exciting it further. A time proven technique to achieve this, quite widely used in hypnosis, is counting backwards. Counting backwards tires your brain significantly, it is a surprisingly difficult job. In hypnosis, the therapist would often ask the hypnotised person to cont from 100 backwards. By the time they reached 1, their calmness would be so deep, they would be on the edge of sleep. In such state establishing rapport becomes relatively easy.

To alleviate the positive effects of this phenomenon, you will have two choices, as for your counting. One is to count 10 to 1, just the opposite of what you would be doing in Zen meditation.

  • Count each inhale and exhale, starting at 10, until you reach 1. Count like this:

    10 – Inhale
    9 – Exhale
    8 – Inhale
    7 – Exhale
    6 – Inhale
    5 – Exhale
    4 – Inhale
    3 – Exhale
    2 – Inhale
    1 – Exhale

When you reach 1, you can start again at 10, counting down to 1 again. Repeat as many time as you feel necessary. This technique will have a lesser effect in calming your mind, probably more adequate for situations of not so great stress. It will also have the benefit of preventing you from falling asleep, so you might want to chose this one, if you are for example at work.

  • The other option would be to count backwards from 100, until you reach 1. This will require much greater effort. Count like this:

    100 – Inhale
    99 – Exhale
    98 – Inhale
    97 – Exhale
    96 – Inhale
    95 – Exhale
    94 – Inhale
    93 – Exhale
    92 – Inhale
    91 – Exhale
    90 – Inhale
    89 – exhale
    88 – Inhale
    87 – Exhale

    4 – Inhale
    3 – Exhale
    2 – Inhale
    1 – Exhale

If you are able to maintain counting backwards that way, which requires a great amount of focus, you were most possibly able to calm yourself from the most demanding stress situations you can even imagine. If you were not able to reach 1, do not worry, it is much more difficult to do than it sounds, you are not doing anything wrong.

Regardless of how far you got, you will probably already feel the benefits of it. You can always start again from 100, if you lose your count. Your goal is not to reach number 1, but to calm your nervous system, which will eventually happen, if you practise long enough. Also, you can always just switch to the easier way of counting 10 to 1, if counting form 100 proves to be too difficult.

The drawback of counting from 100 is its potential to make you drowsy or even fall asleep, probably you will prefer this method in the comfort of your own home, or even at bed time, if you have difficulty falling asleep due to chronic stress and a wandering mind.

To conclude

Leaning to breathe correctly will have the health benefits reaching far beyond reducing stress levels, but from a stress management view-point it will be your most important asset. Through breathing you will be able to indirectly control your heart-rate, though controlling the length and depth of your breaths themselves. Adding the technique of counting backwards alleviates the psychological effect of giving your mind a difficult task to concentrate on, essentially drawing your attention away from whatever makes you stressed and towards the internal processes taking place inside of your body.

Although calming your mind this way is a great tool of relaxation and instant stress management, in the long term you really should sort out the root cause of your stress and bring on that long-needed lifestyle change.

If you are interested in knowing more about breathing, and learning 9different breathing techniques you can use alongside meditation practices, with 10 different ways of meditation, you can put to use immediately to reach your longer term goals, The Essence of Meditation has all this and much more to offer

Do you know of a similar or better stress management technique? Share your knowledge below in the comments.

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Featured image credit: Tree Leaf Clover via Foter.com / CC BY

Medulla oblongata (animation) image licensed CC-BY-SA-2.1-jp by BodyParts3D/Anatomography Read more

About the author

Attila has been practising traditional meditation, QiGong and breathing techniques since early childhood. Not pretending to be a guru, or an enlightened being of any sort, his aim is to transmit what he has learned through these years, for everyone's benefit.

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