Feeling Tense? How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety through Breath Work

What causes stress in your life? Is it the major life changes? The countless responsibilities? Or the minor inconveniences? Maybe it’s all of the above?

The fact that change and unexpected events are a part of life means that everyone will experience stress. Stress is synonymous with change. Even positive changes are stress provoking.

Fortunately, stress is natural, and is an important part of dealing with life’s many challenges. It prepares our body and signals us to take action. Though, excessive stress can cause serious mental and physical health problems.

Many people experience chronic stress directly related to the daily activities and responsibilities they are consumed with. The type-A personality or on the go professional that engages in continuous activity may exemplify the current state of stress for many well to do American’s. Though, this constant motion with no time for rest has ramifications.

How does stress impact the body and mind? Stress has a mutual impact between mental and physical conditions. We experience stress through a combination of both emotional distress and physical arousal.

Mentally, we experience worried thoughts and distressing concerns. We have looming worries about bills, deadlines, friends, family, and health, which keep us in a perpetual cycle of distress. This can lead to anxiety and depression if these concerning thoughts become overwhelming.

Physically, we experience what’s called the fight-or-flight response, which prepares our body to deal with an emerging threat. The sympathetic nervous system becomes activated and increases heart rate, blood pressure, and sends blood to the muscles to prepare for taking action. If this state of arousal is chronic it can cause long-term health problems, such as hypertension.

There are many ways to neutralize the stress response, and one major way is through breathing techniques. The goal is to focus on your breath instead of the anxiety or stress, in order to relax the body and calm the mind.

Below are three techniques adapted from Dr. Andrew Weil to begin implementing into your daily life.

Focus on your breath

Technique one: Belly Breathing

In order to breathe more fully, work toward abdominal or “belly” breathing, which is where your abdomen expands outward during inhalation. This is a more natural way to breath, and is how people tend to breathe as they sleep. Many people don’t belly breath because they’re used to holding in their stomach or wearing tight clothing. If you aren’t belly breathing you are constricting your ability to take full, deep breaths. To see if this is happening, put your hand on your stomach and feel if the abdomen expands as you inhale. A helpful idea is to imagine you are  filling a balloon when you breathe in, and letting the air out of a balloon as you exhale.

Technique two: Make your breaths slower, deeper, quieter, more regular

When people are emotionally upset their breathing tends to become shallow, rapid, loud, and irregular. The key to maintaining a calm and relaxed state is to focus on breathing deeper, quieter, and slower. Doing this when you’re feeling upset, provides the means to voluntarily change your breathing pattern to begin calming the body and neutralizing anxiety before it escalates. Take a deep breath and focus consciously on making it deeper, slower, quieter, and regular. Do this for a few cycles.

Technique three: Increase exhalation

Another technique to help with deep breathing is to increase exhalation. Most people focus on taking deep breaths by inhalation, though the muscles used to exhale are stronger, and thus can move more air in and out of the lungs. If you focus on exhalation you will invariably take deeper breaths. Focus on squeezing more air out and matching the length of inhalations and exhalations in the general breathing pattern. The more air you move out the more you will take in. Consider this as you work toward taking slower, regular, and deeper breaths.

Bringing it all Together

The above techniques can be combined in a way to provide a comprehensive breathing technique to reduce stress and anxiety.

Begin by inhaling through your nose, taking a “belly” breath for the count of 4.

One one thousand…two one thousand…three one thousand…four one thousand.

Hold this breath for a count of 2.

One one thousand…two one thousand.

Exhale out of your mouth for a count of 6.

One one thousand…two one thousand…three one thousand…four one thousand…five one thousand…six one thousand.

Repeat this breath work for about 4 cycles, and then breathe normally.

Go ahead and try it. How do you feel?

Calming Body and Mind

By applying the above techniques you can begin to calm your body and mind when experiencing anxiety or stress. It’s a simple and immediate practice that can be done anywhere, whether in the car, while waiting for an important meeting, or just to start off the day. By developing the practice of focusing on and enhancing your breathing patterns, a calm and relaxation can take the place of agitation and irritability. You can begin to remove your thoughts from a cycle of worry and start to focus on the life force of breath. In doing so, the body will relax and your overall well-being will start to improve.