We all deal with varying levels of stress; our jobs, relationships, commutes, and finances all cause stress that we manage stress on a daily basis. Stress relief, rather than management, is also a routine that can make its way into our everyday lives. Whether through meditation, exercise, yoga, or pranayama meditation, many different practices will help relieve stress. We find that one of the easiest and quickest approaches is through breath work. Controlled breathing will encourage feelings of calm and relaxation through your entire body.
How Stress Impacts our Bodies
When our bodies are under stress, the fight or flight response is activated: the body’s natural reaction to emergencies or dangerous situations. The same response is activated when we face daily stress from our careers, bank accounts, families, and more. When the fight or flight response is repeatedly provoked over situations that are not life-threatening, many issues can arise in our bodies. From weakened immune systems, increased blood pressure, to increased anxiety and depression, constant stress can put some serious wear and tear on our emotional health.
The Relaxation Response
The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the fight or flight response and a studied technique to manage stress relief. Developed in the 1970s by Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, this response puts our bodies in a state of deep relaxation. When the relaxation response is activated, your blood pressure will slow down, your breathing will be slower and deeper, your heart rate will slow down, your muscles will relax, and you will have increased blood flow to your brain. Additionally, the relaxation response will increase your energy and focus, having a positive impact on your productivity and motivation.
Breathing to Relieve Stress
One of the quickest and easiest ways to relieve stress is to engage in breathing exercises that activate the relaxation response. Breathing exercises focus on deep breathing from your abdomen instead of shallow breathing from your chest. Shallow chest breathing limits our diaphragms’ range of motion and the lowest part of our lungs will not be engaged. Deep abdominal (“belly breathing”) will give more oxygen to the body to provide stress relief and activate the relaxation response.
We can relate the relaxation response to pranayama breathing, or pranayama meditation. Pranayama and meditation are compliments to one another. As outlined in the eight limbs of yoga, pranayama comes before meditation. Therefore, pranayama will ready the mind for meditation. Pranayama breathing will help you come to the present moment, where you can focus on your breath. This type of breathing will help you find your inner peace and calm.
You can engage in deep belly breathing anywhere and at any time. Whether you have two or twenty minutes, relaxing your breath and focusing your thoughts on your breathing will help you relax and de-stress, engaging the relaxation response.
Here is a quick exercise that can help:
- Start with a few normal breaths
- Transition to a few deep breaths
- When you are ready, breathe in slowly through your nose, letting your chest rise, followed by your belly
- Continue to suck in air, letting your belly rise and your lungs fill completely
- When you are ready, breathe out slowly (either through your nose or mouth, whatever feels more natural to you)
- Release air first from your belly and then from your chest
- Continue this for as long as your schedule allows
Additionally, these guides provide breathing exercises to try:
While deep belly breathing is easy to do, there are plenty of other ways to engage the relaxation response. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and muscle relaxation are just a few. The Cody library has plenty of options for yoga and meditation; Dylan Werner’s Power of Breath plan is a great series that offers a variety of breathing techniques to get you relaxed and ready for your day.