Breath Work for Stress Reduction
Breath work for stress reduction
Breath work can be fantastic for stress reduction. If you’re looking for a powerful, easily accessible, easily practiced method for improving your stress levels, it might just be what you’re after.
Buddhists, yoga practitioners, tai chi and qigong practitioners, eastern healers, and adherents of many other traditions have been using breath work for thousands of years. Indeed, many believe that breath is the foundation of our life force and energy, or chi or qi to many. Their practice therefore places breath work at the forefront of healing.
It maybe obvious when you think about it. Oxygen is, literally, the breath of life. Nothing we do is possible without it – we wouldn’t last more than a couple of minutes. However, plenty of people overlook it. Breathing is always just sort of… there. You do it without thinking, so you don’t think about it.
However, breath work can be central to overcoming stress and anxiety.
Breath work and stress
You can calm yourself using breath work. You can use it to bring yourself back to equilibrium, back to a sense of peace.
Of course, the theory is simple enough. Proper, full inhalations falter when we are stressed or anxious. This is a problem. Proper, full inhalations are key for nourishing the body and mind; they help to release stress and tension as you exhale.
Of course, it goes deeper than this. There are plenty of spiritual, metaphysical, and alternative views that some people prescribe to more than others. These might work for you. They might not. Today, we are after simplicity. The notion of simply breathing as nourishment and meditation should serve us well.
Scientific research into breath work is very promising. Much of it confirms what breath work practitioners have believed for thousands of years. It really does make you happier, healthier, and calmer.
The research underlines three main areas of benefit:
- Breath work alkalises your blood pH
- It elicits an anti-inflammatory response
- And it can elevate your mood
As above, breath work can help to undo a lot of the physicality we associate with stress. Stress and anxiety typically cause us to adopt shallower, faster breathing patterns. This is a fairly typical fight or flight reaction. It robs us of oxygen, which further panics us.
If you slow your breath, however, this all changes. Just take deep, meaningful, mindful breaths, and you can provoke the opposite response. You will both bring plenty of oxygen in, elevating your mood, alkalising your blood, and bringing about that anti-inflammatory response. You will also signal to your mind and body that things are OK. In doing so, you can overcome that fight or flight response.
Deep breathing exercises can alter our states of mind in the short and long term. They can also aid out meditation practice, which will further bring about a sense of calm to your life.
How can breath work relieve stress?
Modern studies have shown that breath work can have many positive benefits that can directly improve your stress and anxiety levels.
For example, we now know that breathing exercises can actually improve cognitive function, encourage positive thought processes, and reduce symptoms of anxiety. For instance, a study from 2018 showed a possible neurological link between respiration and mental clarity. Regular intentional and consistent breathing exercises were shown to affect the levels of noradrenaline in practitioners’ brains.
This is incredibly important. Noradrenaline is a natural chemical messenger that our brains release when we are being challenged, having to focus hard, or are becoming emotionally aroused. Stress takes this too far. When stressed, our brains release too much noradrenaline (on the other hand, we produce less when we are feeling sluggish, which is why adrenaline-boosting moments of panic seem to wake us up so much).
Those who practice breath work every day can put themselves right in the middle, between stress and relaxation. They will be calm but very alert and focussed.
Breath work goes beyond stress reduction, though. It can improve symptoms of depression and decrease overall levels of anxiety. This comes back to the shallow breathing mentioned above. When we are stressed or upset, we don’t take proper deep breaths. In turn, our bodies take in less oxygen.
This can become chronic. Long term shallow breathing can come into play. This can put you into a stress cycle, which can affect just about every aspect of your physical and mental wellbeing. It can lead to long term anxiety and depression. Consciously breaking this pattern can in turn help to alleviate this anxiety and depression.
Breath work practice for stress reduction
These common breathing exercises can be perfect for reducing stress and improving mindfulness and relaxation. They are easy to learn, quick to perfect, and don’t take any specialist knowledge or equipment. Simply practice them, figure out which works best for you, and set aside a few minutes a few times per day to run through them.
You want to be comfortable for this. Other than that, there are no requirements on positioning or posture. Relax, close your eyes, and begin to notice your breath. Take not of its depth, its power, the pace at which you are breathing, the difference in speed between your inhale and exhale.
Next, place a hand on your diaphragm (your stomach area, broadly). Now, feel it expand and contract. Notice whether you speed up or slow down your breathing.
Mindful breathing is a great first entry into breath work for stress. It will teach you to follow the breath, to become aware of it, and to notice how you affect it and vice versa.
This is where we begin to get into a little meditation. Counted breath work can be fantastic for stress reduction and peace of mind. It helps you to pace your breathing, elongating each breath, extending your exhalations, and making the most of each.
There are plenty of different ways to practice counted breathing. Here’s a straightforward, simple yet effective version:
Begin with mindful breathing for a little while. Get the pace of your breath, centre yourself, and prepare for the meditation.
Then place your tongue against the roof of your mouth, pressing lightly.
Inhale through your nose, drawing the air down towards your belly.
Count to five as you inhale.
Hold for a second, then exhale through either your nose or mouth.
Count to eight as you exhale.
Then repeat for as long as you want.
This will teach you how to fully empty your lungs. In turn, this will help you to maximise oxygen provision to your body. At the same time, the mindful counting will be soothing and meditative.
Visualisation breath work
Now I want to move onto a couple of visualisation techniques. Visualisation can be key in making breath work effective, especially for stress reduction. It can change the way you think about the breath. It can make you more mindful of it. In fact, get it right, and it can change the way you breath entirely.
First, let’s look at a common technique called inflating the balloon.
Inflating the balloon
For this one, get into a comfortable seated position. Cross legged on the floor or a cushion works well, though any seat will be fine. Then close your eyes and begin breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. From here:
Begin with mindful breathing once more. When you are ready, begin by sending your awareness to your abdomen.
With each inhalation, imagine that your abdomen is a balloon filling with air.
With each exhalation, imagine that you are slowly letting the air escape. Don’t force it out. Don’t actively breath out. Simply allow it to escape, as it would from a balloon. Allow your lungs to fully empty before inhaling again.
This should help to teach you to breath calmly, slowly, and fully.
Then there is a technique that we can all simply releasing. You use this breath work pattern specifically to release your stress.
Begin as with inflating the balloon. You want to be in a comfortable seat with closed eyes, breathing deeply into the diaphragm.
As you inhale, imagine that you are drawing all of your stress in towards your centre. Pull it all in towards your chest. Every negative thought, every bunched up muscle, every stress and worry should come together in a big bundle.
Then, as you exhale, breathe all the stress away. Picture it leaving your body as you breath out slowly and deeply.
Repeat the process for as long as you need, until there is no stress left to gather up.
By the end, you should feel your stress levels lessen. The mental load of your stress and worry should lighten as you actively turn it away from yourself.
This is a little bit like releasing. However, it is far more versatile – you can do it anywhere, in any position, no matter the circumstances. This makes cleansing breath perfect for stressful situations in which you might need to quickly bring your heartrate down and focus on mindfulness and peace.
To perform cleansing breaths:
Breathe in as deeply as possible through your nose. Really try to bring in as much oxygen to your body as possible.
Then reverse, slowly exhaling as deeply as possible through your mouth.
You might want to pause at the bottom, holding for a second or two before inhaling again.
Repeat for as long as you need it until you feel calm and refreshed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Finally, we have progressive muscle relaxation. It is a full body meditation similar to body scans and other, similar techniques used in yoga practice.
During progressive muscle relaxation, you will tie each breath to a muscle group, exhaling the tension and stress away from the muscles. It is a fantastic combination of mental and physical release.
Begin by lying on the floor, preferably on something comfortable like a yoga mat or soft carpet.
Take a few deep breaths. Try to relax and breathe slowly throughout.
Inhale. As you do so, tense the muscles of your feet and ankles.
Release these muscles as you exhale.
Then tense your calf muscles on the next inhalation, perhaps your shins, too.
Exhale and release.
Keep going. Work all the way up from your feet to your head, tensing and releasing each muscle group as you go. Try to work through your legs, hips, diaphragm and core, chest, shoulders, arms, fingers and hands, neck, and face.
Increase your wellbeing through breath work
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Read more: Types of Breath work: Learn how to harness the power of your breath