For many of us, being relentlessly stressed-out has become an almost ‘normal’ state, however unpleasant. Unfortunately, the stress overload of modern life can have a massive impact on our health, weakening immunity, damaging organs and, over time, increasing the risk for many of the diseases we fear most. So, it’s essential to our well-being that we learn how to relieve stress by harnessing the power of our minds, instead of relying on drinks, drugs or food to take the edge off.
So, how to bust stress, anywhere, anytime? In my opinion, therapeutic breathing techniques and mindfulness skills are extraordinarily effective and healthful paths for both immediate and longer-term relief. Here are a few thoughts on how to use these simple methods to help deflate the daily stress bubble in a matter of seconds:
Stop stress with breath.
As stress levels start to rise, say, during your commute or right after that conference call you’ve been dreading, instead of letting your head spin, pause for a moment, shift focus to your breath and consciously slow it down.
Try breathing in to a count of 6, and exhale to a count of 7, tuning into your physical self – and out of your stressed-out head. Within seconds, a host of mind/body effects will begin the unwinding process. Your body’s “relaxation response” kicks in: the emotion of the moment drains away as your heart rate slows and blood pressure and heart rate head back down to a healthier range. Changing the focus in this way helps override obsessive or upsetting thoughts, robbing them of their power. It’s also empowering to know that you have the ability to calm and soothe yourself simply by breathing very slowly and deeply
You don’t have to be a guru to become more mindful and aware.
No matter which meditation technique you prefer, it will almost certainly start with the breath as part of the relaxation process. The first step is a simple one: just notice how the rhythm of your breath varies continuously. For example, when you’re upset or anxious, breathing speeds up; when you’re relaxed or sleeping, it slows down. To get into a breath-awareness groove, and to become more sensitive to the contrast in real time, try this basic 2-step exercise:
- Breathe shallowly and rapidly and monitor how you’re feeling at that moment.
- Next, breathe deeply and slowly and feel the difference.
Besides kicking off the relaxation response, in time, the practice will train your mind to learn how to let go, and to go with the flow in so many aspects of your day-to-day life. That’s a pretty valuable lesson!
Breathe in with these stress-soothers.
Another reason to love mindful (or conscious) breathing techniques? They activate the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the ‘rest-and-digest’ system) making them excellent instant stress relievers to always have in your back pocket, instead of Xanax! Here are three go-to techniques to swiftly soothe body and mind:
1) The Basic ‘Ab & Flow’ Abdominal Breathing
- Find a quiet spot that’s free of distractions.
- Sit or lie down in a relaxed, comfortable position.
- Place hands on your abdomen, gently close your mouth (no clenching!), touch your tongue to your upper palate, and breathe through your nose. If your nasal passages are blocked, feel free to breathe through your mouth.
- Inhale slowly and deeply, drawing air towards your abdomen rather than your chest and become aware of the diaphragm moving downward as your abdomen expands – it will feel a bit like a balloon.
- As you inhale, don’t hold your breath, just exhale slowly, and notice how your abdomen falls as you exhale.
- Gently push all the breath out of your lungs on the expiration, which should last about twice as long as the inhalation as you get into a relaxed state.
- Keep repeating, as you maintain focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen.
2) Advanced ‘Ab & Flow’ Abdominal Breathing
- Find a comfortable position, and do 10 abdominal breaths (outlined above) – as the warm up.
- On the next inhalation, focus on and imagine that you’re breathing into a tense area: a tight neck, strained lower back, your head, your buttocks, or wherever you’re experiencing pain or tension.
- Each time you exhale, focus on letting the tension exit through your nose along with the air.
- Keep repeating this cycle until pain or tension starts to ease.
3) The ‘Anywhere, Anytime’ Stress Buster: 4-7-8 Breathing
- Place the tip of your tongue so it’s touching the spot where the back of your top teeth meet the roof of your mouth.
- Completely exhale, making a ‘whoosh’ or sighing sound.
- Close your mouth, then inhale through the nose to the count of 4.
Harness the power of your mind.
One of the most powerful resources you have is your own mind. But it can work against you and make you feel stressed out if you let it ruminate and obsess on things that have happened in the past or could happen in the future. But when your mind is calm and focused on the present moment, it can be your biggest supporter, enabling you to relax and keep stress in check. So, instead of worrying, try this tried-and-true stress-buster:
Mindfulness Exercise: Be Here Now
- Set a timer for 2-5 minutes. Commit to this exercise fully for the duration.
- Ask your mind to focus entirely on your physical sensations.
- As you sit in your chair, feel how your back presses against the chair.
- Feel the backs of your legs and your buttocks.
- Notice your feet against the ground. Be aware of your heels, your toes. Which bears more weight?
- Bring your awareness to your skin. Feel the air against your bare skin. Feel your clothes as they lie against your skin.
- Notice your breath as it falls deep into your chest and as it rises again through your mouth and nose.
- Feel your blood rushing through your veins, and your heart beating in your chest.
- When your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring it back to being aware of your body and to how it feels.
- Continue to be aware of your body and its sensations until the timer goes off.