the quickest, least expensive and most effective way to relax
By Mary Polce-Lynch, Ph.D., September 2012
As summer comes to a close and the frenzy of the back-to-school season is upon us, many of us think the answer to our stressful lives is a vacation at the beach. While vacations can always help us relax, researchers have discovered that people need to de-stress on a daily basis, not just during occasional vacations. What is the quickest, least expensive and most effective way to de-stress and relax? The answer is…deep breathing.
Everyone can practice deep breathing. Because it requires nothing except you and your breath, it can be done anywhere, anytime. The benefits of deep breathing include immediate relaxation as well as an improved ability to handle stress and to regulate emotions (especially anger). Deep breathing is also proven to help bring our focus to the present moment and promote being centered even in the most challenging situations.
Why is deep breathing so effective?
Deep breathing transforms our energy from tension to relaxation by turning off our sympathetic nervous system, which produces stress hormones, and turning on our parasympathetic nervous system, which turns off the stress hormone pump. It turns on the body’s “relaxation response,” which involves lowered blood pressure, decreased heart rate and a feeling of calm.
Since the brain needs a lot of oxygen to function optimally (it uses about 80 percent of the oxygen present in the body), how we breathe has a huge impact on our mental health and physical well-being. When depressed or anxious, our breaths are shallow, our shoulders are slumped and our lungs are collapsed, causing our brain to not get enough oxygen-rich blood. Deep breathing corrects our tendency to tense our body. With some adjustments in our posture, deep breathing allows our lungs to expand to their full capacity and our body and mind to receive more oxygen. In addition, deep breathing can help alleviate depression by restoring balance to the biochemistry of the brain: levels of “feel good” hormones (oxytocin and prolactin) increase, and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, decrease. Deep breathing is one of the most important components in managing panic attacks. With daily practice, we can expect to see physical improvements in our circulation and blood pressure.
Steps for practicing deep breathing:
- Set aside one to two minutes for yourself. Find a space and time when you will be free from demands or distractions: a quiet room, your office with the door closed, or your car after pulling into a parking place at work. You can do it wherever, really. The main goal is finding a time and place where you are completely relaxed.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Place both feet on the floor, sit up with a straight back and lay your open hands on top of your legs. If you are comfortable sitting in the cross-legged Yoga position that is fine, too.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose, deeply, so that your abdomen extends. Concentrate on breathing with the abdomen instead of the chest. Hold your breath one to two seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth, completely, until all your breath is out. Wait one to two seconds. Do five of these deep cleansing breaths then continue with breathing deeply in and out of the nose.
- Every day, set a timer or cell phone alarm for one minute at the start, and work your way up to 10 or 15 minutes.
- When you notice your mind wandering (to the grocery list or silly mistake from earlier in the day) while breathing, simply observe the thought and let it go. Then re-focus on your breath. Always return to your breath.
- Some people maintain a focus on their breath by saying a word in their mind such as peace or joy on the in and out breath. Some people use a word or image from their faith tradition. You may discover your own words or images, or use none at all.
- After opening your eyes, let any dizziness subside before standing. Dizziness can occur when blood pressure lowers, but returning to normal breathing quickly takes care of this.
- You may do this exercise as often as you’d like each day. But once daily is the minimum because everyone has at least one to two extra minutes each day for themselves.
- During the day or evening, you can take breaths as needed when you notice yourself feeling stressed. Take one or two deep breaths with your eyes open (even while talking with someone or while doing laundry) and your body will relax because you have trained it to do so during your deep breathing practice.
The benefits of deep breathing include:
- The Aaaah factor feels wonderful, and unlike guilty pleasures, it’s good for you.
- Like learning a sport or new skill, the more you do it, the more your body remembers.
- If you feel stressed during the day, take a couple of deep breaths. Your body will learn to relax sooner than in the past because you have “trained” it.
- As your body learns to relax through breathing, you (and others) may notice that you are generally a calmer person.
- There is no financial cost, and the only side effects are good ones - physical, emotional, and perhaps, spiritual.
Deep breathing can unlock doors to self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-love, peace of mind…and perhaps even self-healing. Children and teens can benefit from this as well, so please share with your friends and family!