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Stress-BustingToolkit: Breathing Techniques

Stress is inevitable. It is a normal part of life. Our body was made to handle short periods of stress. However, longer periods of chronic stress can drain our energy and vitality and lead to health issues.

In a previous blog post I explain how to take the first step towards preventing health issues by using a simple “body scan” technique to identify your own unique responses to stress. Early recognition provides an opportunity for you to take action to minimize the negative impact of stress on your health. So, check out my Stress-Busting Toolkit-Body Scan blog post.

Sometimes steps can be taken to prevent or reduce sources of stress. When this is not possible, it is helpful to have ways to minimize the negative impact of stress. Over the years I have researched and experimented with a variety of ways to improve my response to stress. I developed a “tool-kit” of stress-busting options that I use when needed. Using the breath to manage stress is one type of tool that is easy to learn and easy to use when stressful situations arise.

Many people have a tendency to breath shallow or hold their breath when they are stressed. This decreases oxygen to the brain and other tissues and makes it more difficult to think clearly and manage emotions. Correcting this problem by using breathing techniques can be very effective in managing stress. Here are some of my favorite breathing techniques to use when you notice signs of stress, along with ideas for how to add them to your life.

Yogic breath

o Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.

o Take a slow deep breath through your nose.

o As you inhale, direct your breath first into your belly and feel your hand on your belly rise. Continue inhaling and notice your ribs cage expand outwards. Keep inhaling until you notice your chest rise last.

o Then relax and let the breath flow out naturally through your mouth or nose.

o Do this as many times as needed until you feel calm.

o It can help to practice this at home, such as right when you wake up and/or at bedtime, so that this is easier to do when you need it during a busy day. It also helps with calming the mind so you can fall asleep more easily.

Extended Exhalation Breathing

o Extending the duration of exhalation as compared to inhalation can cause a relaxation response in the body.

o One way to do this is to breath in through your nose for a count of 4 and then exhale through either your nose or mouth for a count of 6 or more.

o You can experiment with the amount of time on either the inhalation and exhalation as long as the exhalation takes a longer period of time than the inhalation.

o One way to help extend the exhalation is to exhale through your mouth while “pursing” your lips, which means pulling the lips together like you would if you were going to sip through a straw. Exhaling this ways slows down the exhalation.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

o You will use your thumb and fourth finger of one hand to help you alternate breathing in from one nostril and switching to breathing out through the other.

o Press your right thumb against your right nostril to close it. Inhale slowly through your left nostril.

o Release your thumb, and press your fourth finger against your left nostril to close. Exhale slowly through your right nostril.

o Keeping your fourth finger pressed on the left nostril, inhale through your right nostril.

o Release your fourth finger, and press your thumb against your right nostril to close it. Exhale through your left nostril.

o Repeat the steps above starting with keeping your thumb in place as you inhale through your left nostril.

o Continue taking slow breaths alternating between nostrils until you feel more calm.

o You can try holding your inhalation for one to two seconds before exhaling if you like. For some people, this will cause anxiety, in which case just keep inhaling and exhaling without holding your breath.

o If you are experiencing nasal congestion, this breathing technique will not work very well. Instead, try one of the other breathing techniques. Here a video on this that you may find helpful.

It can be helpful to set your phone alarm to ring at various times during the day, or use a phone app that you set to chime at set times, then spend a minute or more doing some type of relaxation breathing. This helps you train your mind and body to learn to stay relaxed throughout the day.

Knowledge is power when organized and directed towards a goal. Here’s to your health.

Karen M. Gutierrez, PhD, RN, Advanced Holistic Nurse-Board Certified


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