As a student, I avoided any biology class out of fear I would have to cut up a frog. Consequently, my knowledge of anatomy is rudimentary. Even that may be an exaggeration.
One piece of information I have picked up is that the autonomic nervous system regulates processes that are not under our control, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. The system also regulates our breathing, but unlike the other processes, we can override that regulation by concentrating on our breathing.
Various patterns of breathing that alter the normal pattern can activate the body’s relaxation response and increase our sense of calmness.
Like the late-night television salesman yells at us, “But wait! There’s more!” Other benefits include the following:
- lowered blood pressure and heart rate
- reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
- reduced lactic acid buildup in muscle tissue
- balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
- improved immune system function
- increased physical energy
Who Isn’t Stressed Nowadays?
In a recent survey of Americans, over half (55 percent) reported being distressed to the point of enjoying their lives less. Sixty-one percent reported stress-related physical symptoms, such as headaches or difficulty sleeping.
Most of us have a list of items we sometimes stress over—personal finances, failed relationships, global warming, nuclear war, health problems, COVID, our job or lack of a job, or a sick family member. Many people are stressed about not one but several matters over which they have little or no control.
The quickest way people find relief is through smoking, a drink, a pill, a plate of food, compulsive shopping, or some other dysfunctional choice (some of which I’ve used). But as we all know, none of these options are good for our health or well-being in the long run.
A Safe Alternative
Patterned, conscious breathing to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety has terrific advantages. It is free and can be practiced anywhere at any time. No equipment is needed, and there’s no steep learning curve since we already know how to breathe. We don’t have to hire a trainer. And we don’t need to consult our physician before trying the exercise.
Here are three different patterns for you to experiment with.
Deep Diaphragm Breathing
Find a comfortable chair and relax in it. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Take a slow breath through your nose. You will feel your abdomen rise as you fill your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Your abdomen will fall. You can repeat for as long as you need to. You might want to “exhale” your worries and stressful thoughts when you breathe out.
This breathing requires you to pay attention to the present moment without judgment. Instead of focusing on worries, you focus on the sensation of breathing. If your mind wanders away from the present activity of breathing, bring it back. You can create a sense of calm by anchoring yourself in the present moment.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Pattern
You can be either sitting or lying down to practice this breathing. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose while you count to four. Then, hold your breath while you count to seven. Exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of eight. With each cycle, you may find your breathing deepening.
When I Use Patterned Breathing
Anxiety hits me in the wee hours of the morning, usually around two or three o’clock. At that point, everything in my life looks bleak, if not black.
I began using the 4-7-8 technique during these early morning episodes. I can’t say it changed my perspective, but the breathing exercises quickly put me back to sleep. The technique has solved a problem in an easy, nonmedical way. I’m delighted.
My Next Stressful Time
In the near future, I have to go to the French Immigration Office for a second meeting. The first one was so stressful that it took me the better part of the day to recover. Even the next day, I could feel that the stress of the event had not entirely disappeared.
During my next visit, I will be mindfully breathing from the time I leave my house until the appointment ends. The meeting may still be stressful, but I’ll have something to focus on besides how uncomfortable I feel.
What about you? Are you already practicing breathing techniques for relaxation? If not, are you going to give one of them a try?
Oprah Winfrey advises us, “Breathe. Let go. And remind yourself that this very moment is the only one you know for sure you have.”
This seems like an excellent precept to live by.
(Cover photo by Max van den Oetelaar)