Today is a busy day. First, late for work because the sitter had an emergency and the baby spit up all over your shirt. Then, rushing home to run the kids around: Kate to piano, Kyle to soccer. Rush home to change the baby’s diaper and check email for that message you’ve been waiting for. While you are home, you throw in a load of laundry from that never-ending pile in your closet. While there, you see several shirts that you’ve been meaning to iron, but just haven’t had time. You listen to a voicemail from a friend. You remember that you promised to watch her kids tomorrow, and realize that you may have to move around a few things to be able to do so. You run to the fridge, stepping over the toys that Kate decided NOT to pick up, to see if you have enough food for dinner. You are out of milk. You realize you have to run to the grocery store before you make dinner, and it is already 5:00pm. You husband will be home anytime, and the baby is crying, you have to run to pick up Kate from piano, and Kyle just texted you that you are late for the parent meeting for soccer…
Now, take a deep breath. Exhale very slowly.
In our society, we live often in a chronic state of low to medium stress and anxiety. These low levels of constant stress, combined with high stressors that occur occasionally, are very detrimental to our well-being. We live in a minor state of “fight-or-flight”. We don’t literally have to run for our lives, but we constantly have too much on our list of “to-dos” and not enough time to do them.
When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, we start to breathe more quickly, more shallowly, and this leads to greater stress and tension. When we are angry and upset, we breathe the same way. Have you ever found yourself taking a big breath before you yell at your kids? That is because you have been breathing shallowly (as your anger built up), and your body doesn’t have enough air. Low to medium levels of constant stress, when not taken care of, have significant effects on our physical health and emotional well-being.
One very simple deterrent to stress is how we breathe. There are many benefits to deep breathing, but here are a few of the major ones:
1. Deep breathing releases tension.
2. Deep breathing releases toxins. As you breathe out carbon dioxide, your body naturally detoxifies itself.
3. Deep breathing relaxes your body and mind, leaving you with greater energy and clarity of thought.
4. Deep breathing helps relieve pain.
So, let’s talk about how to breathe. When we don’t think about breathing, we breathe shallowly, in our chests. Our abdomens actually pull in and up, leading to less oxygen and shallow breathing. When we focus and breathe deeply, we fill our “core”. You will see your abdomen expand out and your chest will rise. Imagine that you are filling a balloon that starts at your sternum and expands into your abdomen. You will feel a stretching in your “core”.
So, to practice: find a quiet, comfortable place (you can sit or lay down). Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
As you breathe in, count to four slowly in your head. Make sure you feel your stomach and chest expand. (Imagine the balloon).
As you breathe out, count to six. Imagine the stress and tension leaving with your breath.
Do this for several minutes, making sure that you are counting slowly. Optimal deep breathing is about 6 breaths a minute. When we slow down our breathing, we are able to oxygenate our blood.
Who knew that breathing was a skill? This kind of breathing will help you when you are stressed, tired, need to concentrate, sleep, or relieve pain. If you are using this skill regularly, you will find yourself feeling more alert, calm, and able to handle stress. If your body has enough sleep, and you are simply stressed, you will find that deep breathing will invigorate you and leave you feeling refreshed and renewed. If you are tired, deep breathing will help you relax and go to sleep. For additional ideas on helping you sleep, see my post on sleep habits.
So, although deep breathing won’t take away all our stress (look for future posts on stress management), it can help us slow down for a minute, think more clearly, and invigorate us. Can’t we all use a little of those things on our stressful days?