Breathing to Reduce Stress

“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.”  Etty Hillesum
Our breathing changes dramatically when we are under stress. We tend to tense up, stop using our diaphragm and take short, shallow breaths. This upsets the body’s balance and can prolong feelings of stress or anxiety. When we are relaxed, our breathing is slow, even and regular. Deliberately practising a relaxed breathing pattern calms the body and relieves stress in the short term. It can have longer term benefits, including lowered blood pressure and heart rate, increased physical energy, improved immune system and general feelings of well-being. There are many different techniques, the general purpose being to lengthen and deepen our breathing. Some that we particularly like are:

Abdominal breathing

Lie down on your tummy. Rest your head on the pillow. Focus your attention on your breath and breathe gently through your nose. Notice how your chest and abdomen are moving. Uf necessary, gradually change your breathing so that your chest is still and your abdomen is moving up and down. Notice how tension begins to drain away from your body. You will probably also notice that your breathing tends to deepen. Lie quietly and enjoy the sensation.

The whispering breath

This is a technique from yoga and consists simply of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Purse your lips and blow gently out (this should not be a loud noise but more like a whisper).  To begin, do not try and change your rate of breathing and ensure that the in-breath and out-breath are the same length. 
Pay particular attention to the end of the exhalation. Notice that as you do this, your shoulders start to fall, your spine relaxes and the muscles in your back all start to soften. Gradually, you will notice that your breath deepens as you relax more and more.

7/11 breathing

The key principle is to make each out-breath longer than the in-breath. This stimulates the body’s natural relaxation process. Firstly, find a breathing rate that is comfortable for your own lungs. This doesn’t have to be long or deep; the important thing is to maintain a constant rate without getting out of breath. Simply count from 1 to 7 on each in-breath and from 1 to 11 (at the same speed) on the out-breath. This forces you to take in air slightly faster than you expel it and, as you continue you will notice that your body gradually relaxes.

With any of these techniques, it is important to ensure that you have enough breath. If at any point you feel short of breath or lightheaded stop immediately and resume normal breathing. All three of these will benefit from practice. We recommend that you spend 10 minutes each day on your favourite breathing exercise. When you first start, choose a time when you are not stressed, so that you become skilled before you need to use the technique in a stressful situation.  Ideally, find a yoga teacher or other qualified person who is skilled in breathing techniques.  

At times, you may find it difficult to concentrate and your mind goes back to thinking about what is making you stressed. However, it will not be long before you find that it gets easier and that you get increasing benefit.  You can then use any of the techniques at any time when you feel that you are getting stressed.  Even 10 breaths can make a big difference in a difficult situation.

“Stress is basically a disconnection from the earth, a forgetting of the breath.  Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.  Nothing is that important. Just lie down.” Natalie Goldberg