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When stress is high it can seem difficult to breathe fully. The chest becomes tight and constricted, the shoulders rise and the belly squeezes in. Breathing feels choppy, shallow and contrived. This is an obvious contrast from the effortlessly smooth and rhythmic breath that we experience in moments of calm. However, for those struggling with chronic anxiety and worry, tension and strain in the breath can start to seem normal. Breathing exercises that focus on the exhale can help to reverse such patterns of restriction in the body, and in turn bring some ease to the mind. In fact, when done correctly, full and mindful breathing has been found to be one of the most effective grounding techniques to combat stress and restore a sense of spaciousness and relaxation in the body.
Why Breathing Exercises?
If you struggle with chronic stress, anxiety or panic, one of the most important and easy things you can learn is a proper breathing technique. This simple tool can help calm you down when experiencing uncomfortable symptoms due to a racing mind and tense body. But in the midst of high pressures and emotions, these words can be hard to believe. Why would something so simple ever make a difference?
Let's take a look at some of the scientific reasons behind the effectiveness of breathing exercises:
1. Improve parasympathetic tone. Slow breathing helps to stimulate the parasympathetic system or the "rest and digest" part of the nervous system. This is great in the short-term as it will help to turn-off the stress response. But even better, when accessed continually over long periods of time, the parasympathetic nervous system gets stronger. This can change the body's default settings so that the next time a stressor comes along, you may be able to snap back into relaxation mode much more quickly...or perhaps not even set off the panic alarm at all!
2. Stimulate the vagus nerve. As one of the cranial nerves, this structure connects the brain with other parts of the body. Mainly, it is responsible for slowing down heart rate and promoting healthy digestion. Breathing deeply stimulates the vagus nerve to bring calming messages all throughout your body.
3. Reverse tension in the abdominals. Stress often causes a gripping in the abdominal muscles. This a natural and protective response, but it becomes problematic when practiced too frequently. Abdominal strain pulls the spine out of alignment and creates all sort of compression among the organs. When you breathe fully, it is impossible to hold the belly tightly, because it must expand to make room for the incoming air and diaphragm (that big dome-shaped muscle that helps push air in and out of the lungs).
4. Re-wire negative thinking. Stress and anxiety makes it impossible to function in the present. When you are worrying, it likely involves regrets about something that happened in the past or catastrophized predictions about what could happen in the future. In either scenario, distracting thoughts and emotions make it impossible to interact optimally with peers and the surrounding environment. Breathing is a proven way to reconnect with the here and now, and let go of some things that may be out of your control.
The How-Tos of Deep Breathing
I personally experienced a period of time where I felt I that I could not complete a full breath. I constantly yawned in hopes that it would help me catch just one fulfilling, replenishing breath. I kept saying, “I feel like I can’t breathe.” People smiled sympathetically and said, “Well, you are probably anxious! You are obviously breathing because you are still talking.” So yes, they were right: I was still breathing. But that really didn’t help me. The more I thought about my breathing the worse it got. When people told me to “just calm down and take some deep breaths” I found it totally irritating-- because I was trying to do just that!
Eventually I sought out a professional who enlightened me on how to properly take deep soothing breaths. It turned out I had been doing it wrong all along! Trying to force breaths in and out doesn't help anything. Rather, it is important to find a comfy position that relaxes the body as much as possible, close your eyes if this is comfortable and really focus on lengthening the exhale.
It may seem counter intuitive, but the key to improving the inhalation is actually to concentrate on the exhalation. By releasing as much air as possible on the exhale, the lungs will naturally fill up on the inhale. This takes a bit of practice, but is well-worth the effort!
Basic Nose-Mouth Breathing Exercise
Here is the most basic breathing technique that you can practice. Read the sentences below and follow along if you want to give it a try!
Find a comfortable seated position where you can sit up tall without too much effort or strain. Feel your feet grounding into the floor and your sitting bones settle. Release the abdominal muscles and allow your shoulders to settle away from your ears. Eventually you can close your eyes here if this is comfortable for you. If a seated posture feels difficult or uncomfortable for any reason, try this exercise standing or lying down instead.
Take a deep breath in through your nose, counting for 5 seconds. Hold the inhale for approximately 2-3 seconds. Exhale slowly though your mouth for a count of 5-10 seconds. Repeat 4 or 5 times.
Note: You do not need to wait until you are experiencing anxiety to practice this exercise. In fact, you should try to complete this exercise at least twice a day!