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5 Breath Techniques to Reduce Stress and Calm the Nervous System

Life can be chaotic and stressful sometimes. Every time we feel stress, tension, or unease, we have a choice. We can choose to succumb to the pressure of stress, or we can choose to take our power back and find our inner calm and peace. Sometimes, this is easier said than done. How do we do this? How do we reduce our stress and find our inner peace? We can use something that we often take for granted. We may not even realize its impact on our lives. We can use something the mystics, sages and yogis have known for thousands of years. Something that modern science has come to explore and validate; we can use our breath. In this blog, we go over what stress is, how it impacts the nervous system and five simple breathing techniques that you can use in your daily life whenever you feel stressed. Whether that is in line at Costco, sitting in traffic or even at your desk at work.

What is Stress?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is simply any demand or challenge on the body and mind. Some stress is good for us. In fact, it drives all growth and is called eustress. It is why our muscles grow and become stronger when we exercise and why we can get better at tasks with practice. Then, there is the stress that most people are referring to when they use the word "stress," which is called distress (This is also what I mean, when I use the word stress, for the rest of this blog post). Some important things to keep in mind in relation to stress, are that stress is a normal part of life, it affects everyone, not all stress is bad, chronic stress negatively affects health and that stress can be managed. We all know what it feels like to be in distress or feel stressed out. The problem with chronic stress, and why it is so bad for our health, is the way it affects our nervous system.

The Nervous System

The nervous system is the command center of the body. It regulates voluntary actions, like thoughts and movements, as well as involuntary actions, like digestion, hormonal response, sleep cycles, memory, emotions, healing, sexual development and many other things outside of our conscious control. Aging, exposure to toxins, accidents and stress can all damage our nervous system and therefore, impact our everyday functioning. (For more on the Nervous System in general, click here).

The Autonomic Nervous System is the part of the nervous system that is most impacted by stress. The Autonomic Nervous System has two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The Sympathetic Nervous System can be thought of as the "Fight or Flight" system and responds to stress. The Parasympathetic Nervous System can be thought of as the "Rest and Digest" system (For more on the SNS and PSNS click here).

The Nervous System and Stress

Our nervous system evolved when we still lived as nomadic hunter gatherers. Back then, our fight or flight (SNS) response kicked in during life and death situations. For example, we see a tiger, which triggers this system. Then, through a chain of events, our body releases the stress hormone, cortisol, our digestive system is turned off and blood and oxygen are rushed to our muscles in preparation to literally fight or run (flight). Next, we either survive or get eaten. Assuming we survived, our rest and digest (PSNS) response would kick in, bringing us back to our baseline, unstressed state. 

The issue today, is that we are no longer stressed by life or death situations most often, and cannot actually get away from our stressors. Our fight or flight response is triggered by things in daily life like traffic, bosses, etc. This is kind of like if the tiger followed us around all day everyday, never eating us, but always there, keeping us in fear of being eaten, never allowing our rest and digest system to kick in. This leaves us in a state of chronic stress. So, what do we do when our rest and digest system won't kick in? The answer is, we can breath. Studies have shown, and people who use breathing techniques can attest to this, that simple breathing techniques help kick start the rest and digest system. 

Breathing and Stress Reduction

Breathing and feelings of stress and anxiety are inextricably linked. If you have ever felt panic or had a panic attack, you may have noticed that your breathing became rapid and shallow (think of hyperventilating). You also may have found that times when you felt at peace or restful, your breathing became slow and deep. 

According to a Harvard article, changing the rhythm of your breath signals the relaxation response, slows your heart rate and stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the brain stem, to the abdomen and is part of the PSNS (rest and digest system). So, breathing techniques are a way to make the unconscious conscious and activate the rest and digest system at will. Breathing techniques have been found to be so effective, that they are now taught to people who have suffered traumatic events (war veterans, survivors of abuse, natural disasters, etc.) to help manage PTSD. They are also being taught to people who will face stressful and traumatic situation as part of their job, like first responders and the military. 

Five Breath Techniques to Reduce Stress

There are many different types of pranayama and breathwork techniques available today. Here are five breath techniques, that have been proven to help reduce stress. 

*Please note that these techniques are for educational purposes only and not a form of therapy. Always seek treatment and clearance from a medical doctor.*

1. Deep Belly Breathing

-Come to a comfortable position, either lying on your back or in a comfortable chair. If lying down, you might like a pillow under your head and/or knees.

-Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.

-Breathe in through your nose, using your hands to feel your belly rise first and then your chest.

-Slowly exhale.

-Repeat as needed.

2. Alternate nostril breathing:

-Cover your right nostril with one finger and inhale through your left nostril only.

-Cover your left nostril and exhale out through your right nostril only.

-Keep your left nostril covered and inhale through your right nostril only.

-Cover your right nostril and exhale through your left nostril only.

-That makes one round. Repeat as needed.

3. Breath Focus:

-Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down.

-Close your eyes.

-Start taking deep, slow breaths, allowing your entire chest cavity to fill with air.

-As you breathe in, imagine the air is filled with a sense of peace and calm. You can even say (in your head, not audibly) "I breathe in peace and calm."

-As you breathe out, imagine all the stress and tension leaving your body with the breath. You can say (again, in your head, not audibly) "I breathe out stress and tension."

-Repeat as needed.

4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation with Breath:

-Lie on your back and close your eyes.

-Take a few deep breaths to prepare.

-Start at your feet. As you breathe in, tense the muscles of your feet.

-As you breathe out, release the tension in your feet.

-Repeat this for each body part, working your way towards your head.

-End with your face, releasing the tension in your jaw, eyes and forehead.

5. Box Breathing:

-Picture a box in your mind. Start at the bottom left corner of the box. 

-Count to 4, as you inhale from the bottom left corner, to the top left corner.

-Count to 4, as you hold your breath in, from the top left corner to the top right corner.

-Exhale, as you count to 4, from the top right corner to the bottom right corner. 

-Count to 4, without breathing in, from the bottom right corner to the bottom left corner. This makes one cycle with your breath around the box.

-Repeat as needed.

-You can choose how fast you count and which number you count to, as make your way around the box, but try to keep the time for each step the same. Move through the steps at a slow, but comfortable pace.

-Here is a guided video of box breathing from the Sunnybrook Hospital:

Click here and here for more breath techniques. 

Conclusion

Stress is a normal part of living. Not all stress is bad, but chronic distress takes its toll on our nervous system, keeping us in a state of fight or flight, without our rest and digest system counteracting this and brining us back to baseline. Luckily, there is a way to kick start our rest and digest system. We can do this through simple breathing techniques. There are many breath techniques, but five of our favorite breath techniques for stress reduction here at Lotus Tribe, are deep belly breathing, alternate nostril breathing, breath focus, progressive muscle relaxation with breath and box breathing. We hope you will give them a try the next time you are feeling stressed. If you are looking for breathwork or meditation teachers for 1 on 1 sessions, check out the Lotus Tribe Community page.

 

*Breath techniques can help relieve and manage stress, but they are not an alternative to treatment with a mental health professionals. Click here for 60 Digital Resources for Mental Health, if you or someone you know is struggling.*