By Ran Janda – Holistic Room
Breathing when you feel stressed might sound obvious, we breath all the time right!? But next time you feel stressed or anxious, pay attention to how you are breathing.
You will notice your breathing pattern changes when you are feeling stressed, it tends to be shorter and shallower and from the upper chest as opposed to using the diaphragm to move air in and out of the lungs, which is the way we breathe when we are feeling calm and relaxed.
This shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the body’s various reactions to stress. It contributes to the fight or flight response, when the body shifts energy resources to prepare to fight or flee from an enemy. The sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release the hormones adrenalin and cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone.
Practising conscious breathing techniques can reverse this process by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and turning off the stress response. The effects can be felt relatively quickly and with continued regular practice, can make you less prone to stress and activating the sympathetic nervous system going forward.
There are different types of breathing techniques that can be used to calm and relax the body. It is worth practising different ones for a few days at a time to see what works best for you. Below we outline three of our favourites and give you step by step instructions so you can try them out for yourself.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is also known as Nadi Shodhana pranayama in Sanskrit, nadi meaning “channel” and shodhana meaning “purification.” Nadi Shodhana therefore aims at purifying the subtle channels of the mind and body.
Some of the many benefits of this breathing technique include; reduces stress and anxiety, helps to calm the nervous system, helps you to concentrate better by improving your mental clarity.
Here’s how to practice this technique. Choose a comfortable seated position before you begin, the spine and neck should be straight throughout the practice, and then follow the steps below.
Step 1: Use your right hand and press your first and middle fingers to your forehead between your eyes and leave the other fingers extended.
Step 2: Exhale, then use your right thumb to gently close your right nostril.
Step 3: Inhale through your left nostril, then close your left nostril with your little and ring fingers.
Step 4: Release your thumb and exhale out through your right nostril.
Step 5: Inhale through your right nostril and then close this nostril.
Step 6: Release your fingers to open your left nostril and exhale through this side.
These steps complete one cycle. Repeat this cycle for 10 minutes. Finish your session with an exhale on the left side.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
The 4-7-8 breathing technique was developed by Dr Andrew Weil, the founder of the Andrew Weil Centre for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. He is a leader and pioneer in healthcare which encompasses body, mind and spirit.
Dr Weil describes the 4-7-8 breathing technique as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.” Benefits include; reduces stress and calms anxiety, helps you get to sleep, helps to manage food cravings and have more control over emotional responses like anger. The breathing pattern involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds.
Here’s how to practice this technique. Choose a comfortable seated position and keep your back straight throughout the practice. Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. Follow the steps below.
Step 1: Exhale completely through your mouth, releasing any tension you may be holding on to. Repeat this step a few times if needed if you’re especially tense.
Step 2: Close your mouth and inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to a mental count of four.
Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Step 4: Audibly exhale completely through your mouth, for a count of eight.
This is one breath, now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths. You can practice this technique several times a day, after a month of practice, you can start working your way up to eight cycles in total. It becomes more effective with repeated and frequent use.
Keep in mind that you always inhale quietly through the nose and exhale audibly, making a whoosh sound through your mouth. Also, the tip of your tongue stays in position throughout the complete exercise. If you feel lightheaded at any point, return to your normal breathing until it passes, then continue with the technique. If you are not used to deep breathing, your body may need to become more accustomed to a greater flow of oxygen through the body.
Resonance Frequency Breathing
Resonance frequency breathing is a slow, relaxed diaphragmatic breathing of around 3 to 7 breaths per minute. It has a regulating effect on key body systems such as the autonomic nervous system which controls automatic functions of the body such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion. Like the alternate nostril breathing and the 4-7-8 breathing techniques above, when resonance frequency breathing is practised for a period of time, it helps to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the body’s fight or flight response. This helps us cope with the damaging effects of stress on the body and mind and promotes the healing process.
Resonance is what happens when our heart rate, blood pressure and brainwave function come into a coherent frequency and function more efficiently. It begins to happen automatically when we breathe at a rate of 3 to 7 breaths per minute (usual breaths per minute range between 12-20), and it helps put you in a state that those in deep meditation enter.
Many studies on resonance frequency breathing demonstrate a wide array of benefits including; reduction in anxiety and depression, beneficial effects on cardiovascular regulation1, and improved heart rate variability, blood pressure and mood2, all leading to more emotional balance.
Here’s how to practice this technique, choose a comfortable seated position and follow the steps below:
Step 1: Slowly inhale through the nose for four seconds. Breathe deep into your belly, feeling your stomach expand.
Step 2: Slowly exhale through pursed lips for six seconds. Feel your belly empty as you exhale.
Focus your mind, entirely on your breathing, it will help you achieve the goal of breathing no more than six times per minute. That’s it, practice for around 15 minutes each day.
Breathing techniques are simple to learn and implement, are quick to take effect, require no equipment and can be done anywhere. So, if you are feeling stressed or anxious and want to stop the thoughts from racing through your mind, there is no easier self-treatment to try!
Try breath work alongside journaling for stress, anxiety and depression using these mental health journal prompts.
Ran Janda is an acupuncturist, homeopath and founder of Holistic Room – a platform that helps those looking for good health, healing & wellbeing to find the most suitable natural health practitioner for their specific needs.