We all know that breathing is good for us. We know how utterly delicious it is when we sit down at the end of a long, productive day and finally feel like we can exhale. Or when we arrive on vacation, lay down in the warm sand and deeply inhale the fresh ocean air. We correctly associate deep inhales and complete exhales with being relaxed and at ease.
On the other side of the spectrum, we also know how frustrating it feels when we are stressed, angry or sad and can’t seem to get a deep breath in, or full exhale back out.
The way you are breathing at any given moment is a direct expression of what is going on physiologically inside of you. This makes your breath an astute barometer for stress levels. Fortunately, when you notice you’re short of breath, you have the power to affect the state of your nervous system. You can shift how you breathe to make changes–even in situations where formal “practicing” is not possible–such as work meetings or holiday gatherings.
Following are four fun and fast-acting breathing techniques for stressful times that you can quickly implement to move your own stress-o-meter from sky-high down to an easier, breezier place. Also, you’ll hear from Dinneen Viggiano about each technique, who is a lead trainer of the Tune Up Fitness® Breath & Bliss Immersion.
Relaxation Breathing Technique #1: Elongated Exhale Breathing
Imagine this: You’re at a dinner gathering, trying to enjoy yourself, but still wound-up after a heated call with a client earlier in the day. It seems like the only way to calm yourself would be to down a whisky sour, but you’d rather tune in instead of tune out. So you order yourself the squash soup instead, and try another option: Elongated Exhale Breathing.
When your bowl arrives you sit up and blow softly into it. You inhale smoothly through the nose, taking in the smell of the soup, then exhale gently through pursed lips. The pursed lips restrict air flow, which causes you to elongate your exhale.
From Dinneen Viggiano: When someone gets really upset we always hear others say “take a deep breath”, but really we should be saying: “Breathe, now take a deep exhale” because it’s the lengthening of our exhalation that helps to calm us down. Our heart rate is tied in to our breathing rate due to a phenomenon called “respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA)”. When we inhale our heart rate increases slightly and then decreases again when we exhale.
Why does this work? The lengthened exhale will stimulate your vagus nerve, which wanders from your lungs up through your brain-stem and signals your body to shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance. This causes the relaxation response to kick in, and those revved-up feelings from the client call will begin to ease down. Not only will this help you relax and enjoy the dinner, it will also help you make a more level-headed decision on how to handle the client.
Plus, now your soup is nice and cool and ready to eat.
Relaxation Breathing Technique #2: Resisted Balloon Breathing
Picture this: You’re throwing a party and feeling overwhelmed, plus you’ve got a pile of balloons that still need to be blown up. Problem? Nope. Blowing up balloons (or the Coregeous® sponge ball with a straw as shown below) creates the highly effective Resisted Breath.
Resisted breathing enhances your lung size (ventilatory capacity) which can improve oxygenation to your bloodstream. Poorly oxygenated blood can lead to issues such as breath shortage, confusion, lightheadedness and even coordination problems. Alternately, well oxygenated blood is critical for getting centered and thinking clearly.
From Dinneen Viggiano: Resisted Breath is a bit of resistance training for our respiratory diaphragm. Not only does it strengthen our breathing muscle but it also tunes it. What I mean is that many of us are either “air-gulpers” or “breath-holders”. We have no measure of the volume of air we are inhaling or exhaling. Learning to breathe through a straw requires pacing. It slows us down, eliciting our parasympathetic nervous response.
How does the Resisted Breath work? It heightens breathing endurance. Just like stronger leg muscles will help you run further, stronger breathing muscles will help you regulate your breath to feel calmer, more grounded… better.
Relaxation Breathing Technique #3 Hand On Heart Breathing
You simply need to try this to feel how powerful it can be to be. Touch can be incredibly soothing for your nervous system… either the touch of another trusted human being, or your own self-touch. If you need to calm down quickly, take a few moments to rest your hand over your heart, and inhale and exhale fully into your thoracic abode (ribcage). Try it now!
From Dinneen Viggiano: Hand-on-heart breath creates a sensory feedback loop to our own heartbeat, our pace of breathing and the heated energy of our hands with our body. It’s a great technique to use when you want to slow down and be more present.
Those full breaths will do wonders to help soothe your stress response. The addition of your warm hand will help hold your attention on your body, instead of getting lost up in your head. Take a heart-centered breather, then return to the problem at hand after your body has calmed down.
4. Relaxation Breathing Technique #4: Breathing With a Partner
There are quite a few things at play that make this technique ideal for quick relaxation. First, your back is supported. Your friend/partner/co-worker/kid quite literally “has your back.” When your body feels supported, it tends to calm down. Second, you will feel your partner’s warmth and breath through your own back. This can be very steadying for the human organism. Add to it putting your hand on your own heart and you will give your breath a sandwich of support!
From Dinneen Viggiano: When done back-to-back with another person, we sense the vitality of our partner in the context of our felt sense of ourselves. It’s profoundly intimate and sweet to connect with another person this way.
If you want to include others in your relaxation practice–to help your child or your partner ease off the anxiety throttle, you can make it a game to do this breathing exercise together. Give it a try and let us know what happens!
Related Article: Where Breathing Exercises Fit Into Stress Management (Video)
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Feature image: Tune Up Fitness® teacher Emilie Mikulla
Author: Ariel Kiley