When pre-historic humans were in danger of attack, their muscles tensed and their breathing became rapid and shallow as they prepared to fight or flee. This high level of tension was and is helpful in preparing for optimal performance. Today, the causes of stress are different and quite varied. Modern humans are often not in a position to fight nor to flee and thus our tension has no release and the stress response continues to build.
One way to counteract the stress response is to learn to breathe slowly and deeply— the opposite of how people breathe under stress. When presented with a deep breathing exercise many people roll their eyes thinking, “I know how to breathe!” But if you take a moment to pull breathing away from the other automatic processes of your body, you can bring the act of breathing into conscious awareness and thus, control.
It may sound simple, and it is. Most people, however, do not breathe deeply under normal circumstances. It is therefore helpful to consider the mechanisms of deep breathing and how it can help with relaxation. Think about the way a baby breathes, with his belly moving in and out. This deep breathing is not typical in adults, who mostly breathe from their chest. Chest breathing is shallower, so less oxygen is taken in with each breath. As a result, the blood is forced to move through the system rapidly so that enough oxygen gets to the brain and other tissues. Higher blood pressure and rapid heart rate are the result.
Deep breathing can reverse the negative effects of stress. By helping you let go of tension, deep breathing can help relieve headaches, bodily aches and pain, anxiety, and sleeplessness. It leads to the release of the body’s own painkillers, called endorphins, into the system. It allows blood pressure to return to normal and is good for your heart. Deep breathing can also allow your emotions to be soothed and become less distressing, so your emotional health may also benefit from deep breathing.
Take some time to practice deep breathing each day, especially when you are experiencing stress. You can be sitting, standing, or lying down, and it helps to wear loose, comfortable clothing. It is best to keep your back as straight as it is the optimal position to take in air. Begin by focusing your attention on your breathing and insuring that your belly is expanding with each breath so your diaphragm and your lungs are fully engaged. Breathe deeply and slowly, without strain, in through your nose and out through your mouth. The breathing should not require any strain or exertion, but be fluid, natural, and healing. After you have relaxed your breathing to a slow and steady pattern, try to get your breathing into a rhythm. Each breath in and each breath out should take about four seconds. Pause for about two seconds while holding your breath and before taking a new breath. If you can’t take in enough air or blow out enough air for four seconds, don’t worry, just move at a natural, slow pace
using as much air as you can.
Breathe in….four seconds
Hold it…two seconds
Breathe out…four seconds
If thoughts intrude, do not dwell on them; allow them to pass on and return to focusing on your breathing. If you have difficulty remaining focused, repeat a relaxing word in your mind such as “calm”, or focus your attention on the sensations in and around your nostrils that are caused by each breath. Deep breathing, also called Diaphragmatic Breathing, is one of the easiest and most powerful relaxation tools that you can learn.