You’re not alone. In just one year the percentage of Americans that reported at least one stress symptom per month rose from 71% (2016) to 80% (2017) *1. Which makes so much sense! It’s easy to understand how increasing concerns about the future of the economy, gun violence, terrorism and even the positive motivation to get ahead at work can add up.
“We know that chronic stress can take a toll on a person’s health. It can make existing health problems worse, and even cause disease, either because of changes in the body or bad habits people develop to cope with stress. The bottom line is that stress can lead to real physical and emotional health consequences,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, APA’s executive director for professional practice. *1
So, what is the best exercise for stress relief?
Remarkably, the best natural stress relief is in our power—your breath. We’ll get into breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety, but first it helps to understand the mechanics of breathing and how it triggers a response from the body without you even realizing it!
To begin, it’s helpful to remember that stress itself isn’t negative, its primary purpose is to prepare the body for action. It can be used to avoid a threat or a more motivating type of stress, such as meeting a work deadline. Generally, these types of stressors activate the “fight or flight” response, also called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Too much stimulation of the SNS can lead to headaches, the feeling of being overwhelmed, shortness of breath and eventually chronic illness.
Why Breathing is Good for Stress
The sympathetic nervous system doesn’t work alone though. It’s actually one of two nerve compositions that make up the larger autonomic nervous system from which our unconscious body functions operate.
Deliberately moving the diaphragm–the primary breathing muscle–induces a natural sedative and is one of the most tranquil practices for the body. The parasympathetic nervous is responsible for the “rest and digest” response. Taking deep breaths is the key to activating this part of the response system.
This will prompt the body to enter a state of down regulation. This is the body’s version of a sedative–the best part? There are no nasty side effects.
3 of the best breathing exercises for stress reduction
3 Step Breath from Yoga Tune Up®
- Place a bolster or pillow under the knees as you lie down. Make sure your shoulders are away from the neck and palms are faced toward the sky. Still your body.
- Start by exhaling the breath out completely.
- Inhale, and pause. Hold your breath.
- Continue to inhale, and pause.
- Complete your inhale, and pause.
- Exhale completely.
- Inhale to a count of four through the nostrils.
- Exhale to a count of four.
- Increase to counts of six or eight.
Breathing through the nose is difficult, take your time and work up to increased times.
Diaphragmatic Breathing or abdominal breathing
This exercise utilizes the “heart” of your respiratory system: the diaphragm.
Lie down in a comfortable supine position. Place one hand on your stomach and one on your upper chest. Inhale, filling the bottom of your stomach… Upon exhale, make sure to expel as much air as possible while activating the core for assistance. Aim to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible and just isolate the abdomen. You will feel your stomach rise and fall.
Freely experiment with different patterns of breath. Tune in to your body to sense how you feel after each different technique–including techniques you invent yourself. With increased practice you will train your respiratory muscles to respond to stress in a therapeutic and natural way. This means you will be able to respond more consciously to whatever happens to be stressing you out.
Liked this article? Read Easing Out of Illness