As much as we try to avoid it, the holiday season can be inherently stressful. We tend to over commit for months and stack our plates full with social engagements, things to cook, travel plans, plus extended periods of time with family members (who sometimes we’re the most emotionally sensitive towards). It’s a lot! Even when you’re working hard to keep the holidays super zen, simple and stress-free, someone is bound to cut you off in the mall parking lot, stealing your front row parking space and triggering a cascade of rising blood pressure, anger and stress. Don’t fret, though—we have 3 simple breathing exercises to help overcome stress and get your calm back on. Remember, it’s how we respond to the stress in life, rather than the stressor itself, that makes all the difference.
The Science Behind Stress
To use our example from above; when you get cut off in the parking lot and feel suddenly stressed, angry or anxious, your body signals to your sympathetic nervous system that something is wrong. This cues a body wide stress response…. your adrenal gland takes note by pumping out a hormone called cortisol whose main job is to help you prepare to fight when in danger. This is a fantastic response when you’re actually in danger….your pupils dilate allowing you to take in as much as possible, your blood pressure spikes making sure every organ and muscle is perfused with oxygen and in fighting shape, and your senses all become sharper. This is how humankind rises up to confront danger, and it’s quite effective!
Unfortunately, in modern day life this response can be triggered by non-life or death situations all too often and it’s total overkill. You could be in a tiff with your partner, stuck in traffic, or stressed by an email from your boss and get this same intense “fight or flight” response. If this happens very often, cortisol levels may be become unregulated, taxing your adrenal system (the place in your body where cortisol is released) and causing long term issues. Frequent unregulated increases in cortisol can cause increased rates of depression, weight gain, trouble sleeping, headaches, and concentration and memory issues. This is one example of why self-care and managing stress is important!
Benefits of Practicing Breath Work
Practicing breath work has been scientifically proven to:
- Decrease the stress hormone cortisol
- Increase focus and attention
- Decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Increase your immune system’s ability to fight inflammation and illness
How Does Breath Work Change Stress?
Have you ever been worked up and heard someone say: “just take a few deep breaths”? (to be totally honest, that used to cue an eye roll from me, but not anymore!) There’s actually a lot more to it than just breathing. Current scientific research has proven that by simply slowing your breathing, you actually trigger your jumpy parasympathetic nervous system to scale back that domino response to stress and train your brain to do the opposite: relax! This in turn decreases your cortisol levels, saving your adrenals from doing unnecessary work and cutting back on the yucky long term symptoms relative to uncontrolled stress. Slowing your breath resets your body and reminds inner you that you’re not in danger, and everything is okay.
3 Types of Exercises to Practice
Check out these 3 simple exercises and give them a little practice so you can remember how to employ them the next time you feel your blood pressure rising or things getting out of hand. It’s so powerful to have this kind of control over your stress.
Slow & Easy
This is my personal favorite and the easiest technique to employ in day to day life. It’s great to use if you’re feeling nervous, need to calm down quickly, are about to do something that triggers a lot of emotion, or just have some time to spare sitting in traffic or before a meeting. I usually try to remember to do this as soon as I feel my heart start beating fast or anxiety creeping in, and it relaxes me almost immediately.
Here’s how it works:
- Sitting quietly or lying down, you have the option of placing one hand on your belly and closing your eyes.
- Inhale slowly counting to 6 – your lungs should be as full as possible, from the bottom up by the end of 6 seconds.
- Exhale slowly counting to 6 – your lungs should be as empty as possible, from the top to the bottom, at the end of the 6 seconds.
- Repeat this slow 6 second inhale and 6 second exhale – 4 more times.
- Congrats! You’ve already lowered your cortisol levels. Just one session of 6 breaths per minute helps melt away stress.
- For maximum benefit do this for more than 1 minute at a time, slowly working up to 20 minutes per day is ideal.
Alternate nostril breathing is an ancient yogic technique of breathwork called Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates to channel purifying. There is fascinating scientific research that shows when you breathe into your right nostril it actually activates your body energetically and is stimulating, whereas breathing into your left nostril relaxes your heart rate, brain and respirations. By alternating between the two nostrils you’re creating balance between the two hemispheres of your brain and remediating any imbalances you may be experiencing. You basically take turns breathing out of one nostril at a time while closing off the other with your finger.
Here’s how it works:
- Sit or rest quietly with your left hand on your lap and your right hand near your nose.
- Using your right thumb, gently press into the side of your nose, occluding (closing off) your right nostril while breathing in through the open left nostril.
- Imagine your breath is going straight up in-between your eyebrows, some people like to press their “third eye” or space between their brows with their right index finger to focus their breath up.
- Once your inhale is complete, pause at the top, release your right thumb, and switch nostrils by using your right middle finger to occlude the left nostril.
- Exhale that air out of the now open right nostril, keeping the left closed.
- Leaving the right nostril open, take another inhale and when you reach the top, and then switch again.
- It should flow like this: inhale right, exhale left, inhale left, exhale right.
- If this feels confusing, perhaps look at this illustration to see how your hands may be placed.
- Or this youtube video is also great and easy to follow.
- It’s easier than it sounds and gives you something to focus on while completing your calming breath work!
Visualizing Stress Release
This breath work model is very simple. You’re breathing in the positive and breathing out the negative. It can be helpful for those of you who enjoy visualization or those of you who have a moment to stop and experience a more meditative and inward form of breath work.
Here’s how it works:
- Lying down or sitting quietly, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.
- Close your eyes, and as you inhale, imagine inhaling a long flowing beam of pure white light, cleansing your throat and belly and moving through your entire body as it enters your nose.
- Breath so deep into your belly that you feel the hand resting atop your stomach rise and fall with your breath, your chest should be moving only ½ of what your belly does.
- As you breathe outwards, exhaling, envision all of your stress, anger or frustration leaving your mouth and nose and floating away. It may feel good to let these breaths audibly out of your mouth, sighing deeply and pushing them out until there is nothing left to let go of.
- Try to breathe in for at least 5 seconds and breathe out for at least 7 seconds, inhaling fresh new energy and exhaling anything that is holding you back.
- Keep this up for 10-15 minutes if possible, or, just as long as you have time!