When stress sets in breath is often the first thing to go. Racing thoughts keep your brain in anxiety mode, which tells your body to follow suit. When you trigger the fight or flight physiological response by reacting, instead of responding to stress, your body automatically becomes primed to either attack or run from a situation. As a result, you get a surge of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and your respiratory rate increases, causing shallow breath. Breathing at a rushed and panicked pace leads to an increased state of stress and anxiety, because your body tells your brain you’re in a do-or-die situation. It’s a cycle–and a viscous one for your health when you’re not actually dealing with a crisis.
It’s not often that we actually find ourselves in a fight or flight scenario. Those of us in North America are blessed to live in a relatively safe place, where we’re not facing potentially life-threatening situations daily. Unless we are in imminent physical danger, there is no need to perpetuate the physical, mental and emotional stress cycle. This is where breath comes in–deep, slow, super-conscious breathing.
The first step to take to calm down your sympathetic nervous system is to become more aware of your thoughts. In times of struggle or stress make it your first priority to quiet down and listen to your mental tape. Ask yourself the following questions: how are you interpreting this event? What are the actual facts of this situation? Does it warrant a full-on mind-body stress response? If you realize in those quiet moments that you’re overreacting, as we often do– because, let’s say Tim Horton’s got your bagel order wrong AGAIN– you can wisely respond to the situation.
Once you’ve gotten some mental peace and clarity, you can bring your body to the same place. Take full and slow deep breaths, in and out of your nose. If you only have a minute to chill out, that’s perfect. If you can break up your deep breathing exercises throughout your day, even better. As I tell my students in yoga, listen to the sound of your breath and let the winds of peace bring you back to centre. With every inhale, breathe in a positive thought and with every exhale breathe out what’s no longer serving you. Sometimes I inhale one word like peace or love, and exhale a word like worry, stress or judgement. With every deep breath I cleanse my mind, body and soul.
If you don’t want to take it from me, see what science has to say. Studies show that in the same way that shallow breathing releases stress-hormones in your body like cortisol, deep breathing releases happy hormones like endorphines into the system. These all-natural painkillers help relieve aches and pains, and relax muscles responsible for stomach, back and neck pains. If you want to feel the seemingly magical benefits of deep breathing, make it a regular thing. You can incorporate it into your morning routine, breathing deeply for a few minutes after your meditation, or on the train into work. You can also whip out this incredible tool anytime you’re facing a stressful situation. All you need to do is find a relatively quiet spot for a minute, sit or lie down comfortably and place one hand on your lower belly and the other over your heart. Watch the rise and fall of your belly with each breath in and out. When the going gets tough get back to the basics and use one of the most primitive, but effective tools we have in our human kind toolkit. Take it one breath at a time.