31% of Americans feel more stressed today than they did last year. One in five Americans experiences extreme stress. Symptoms include suffering from headaches and feeling depressed, anxious or overwhelmed. According to the American Psychological Association, stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death. These are heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, cirrhosis of the liver, suicide and accidental injuries.
When stress takes hold of you, one of the first reflexes it changes is your breathing. Your body will shift from calm, deep breaths that originate in your stomach to shallow, rapid breaths that originate in your chest. By taking control of your breath you can take control of your stress. In this article you’ll learn why we have a stress response and three breathing exercises that can help you control it.
Why We Have the Stress Response
If you’re making a presentation at work in front of several hundred people, the stress response is your worst enemy. Before your presentation you might start sweating. Your heart might start racing. Your muscles might start twitching. And you might have trouble socializing and multitasking. Believe it or not, these are all life-saving reflexes that helped keep your ancestors alive.
Back in our hunter gatherer days, the stress response (also known as fight or flight) was humanity’s emergency response kit for the deadliest situations. For example, if you were walking through the jungle and suddenly you heard the roar of a tiger nearby, your stress response would kick in and do all kinds of wonderful things.
It would immediately tense up your muscles so that you could begin running or fighting. Your pupils would dilate so that you could better see an escape route. Your body would begin to sweat to cool itself from the imminent exertion and to make itself more slippery. Your digestion would stop to conserve energy. Your body would pull blood from your extremities so that you didn’t bleed out in the likely event they were injured. And your breathing would shift from relaxed, deep breaths that start in your stomach, to shallow, rapid breaths that start in your chest. This would help you generate energy. For a very brief period of time, you would be superhuman, ready to flee or fight the lion.
Unfortunately, your body doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an emotional threat. In the case of your presentation, you might feel threatened by the possibility of a poor performance. All of the stress responses will kick in. Because modern day emotional threats are more frequent than the physical threats from our hunter gatherer days, our stress response is triggered way too often. This results in a myriad of health issues.
The following three exercises can help you get a grasp on your breathing, and reverse the stress response when it kicks in.
- Lie down on your back. Place a small cushion behind your head. Bend your knees and put your feet flat on the floor. Keep your arms by your side with your palms up.
- Place a small, light object on your belly button.
- Inhale through your nostrils and expand your stomach. Try to let the air you breathe in raise the object on your stomach.
- Once you have taken a deep but comfortable breath, hold it for one or two seconds and then exhale through your nostrils.
- Hold with no breath for one or two seconds.
- Inhale again and repeat the steps.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
- Begin by sitting in a chair with your spine upright and against the back of the chair.
- Place your left hand on your knee with your palm up.
- Place your other hand on your face and touch the tips of your index and middle finger to the spot between your eyebrows.
- If your right hand is on your face, you should be able to touch your right nostril with your thumb and your left nostril with your ring finger. This setup is reversed if you have your left hand on your face.
- Gently press your thumb against your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril.
- Press your ring finger gently against the left nostril.
- Exhale through your right nostril.
- With your ring finger still pressed against the left nostril, inhale through the right nostril.
- Press your thumb against the right nostril and exhale through the left.
- Inhale through your left nostril.
- Repeat the steps. Alternate between inhaling through right nostril, exhaling through the left nostril, then inhaling to the left nostril and exhaling to the right.
- Get comfortable by lying down or sitting in a chair with your spine upright.
- Press the tip of your tongue against the back of your teeth.
- Exhale through your mouth while making a swooshing sound.
- Inhale through your nostrils for four seconds. Keep your tongue pressed against your teeth.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for eight seconds with your tongue still pressed against your teeth.
- Repeat this three more times.
It’s easy for stress to get the best of us. And although we have more luxuries and comforts than ever before, we’re also more connected to stressors. Texting, email, social media and 24 hour news stations make it possible for us to see something that will trigger the stress response anytime. By learning how to control your breathing, you can help smother the flames of stress and anxiety when they flare up.
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