Feeling Stressed? Take Five Deep Breaths.

Deliberate breathing is one of the basic elements of mindfulness.   Let’s explore a little bit about the science of stress, its impact on the body, and how breathing can help.

What happens to your body when you are stressed?  Nothing good!  The sympathetic nervous system (also known as the “fight or flight” response) kicks into gear.  Our digestion slows down, and blood pressure goes up.  Even our brains get involved.  The most primitive part of the brain (also known as the amygdala) takes over from our pre-frontal cortex (which is the rational, thinking, executive-function part of the brain).  We respond as though in a life-or-death situation, and that is not always our most skillful response mode.

We can gain control back to the pre-frontal cortex by doing something as simple as deep breathing.  But there’s a right way to do it:

  1. Feel the cool air rushing across your nostrils as you inhale deeply. Remember that your lungs operate like bellows. You want to breathe deeply, drawing your diaphragm down, allowing your belly to expand as if it were filling with air.
  2. Once you have filled your lungs/belly to capacity, pause.
  3. Then exhale, pressing your belly button back toward your spine.
  4. Pause for a moment, then repeat four more times.

What is happening when you breathe this way?  First, you are accessing sensors in the lower nodes of your lung to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response).  So you’re telling the fight-or-flight mechanism to take a back seat, and allowing your body to regain its normal hormonal state.  Second, you are giving your mind something else to think about.  By the time you have completed your five deep breaths, you will have a much better view of your response options, especially those that are positive.

“Five deep breaths can help us make more deliberate and thoughtful choices about how we respond to stressful situations,” says Monica Verplank, Certified Lifestyles and Mindfulness Coach.  “This is one of the important mindfulness practices that you can employ any time, any where, at any age, to help you navigate stressful situations in a more positive and compassionate way.”

Want to learn more about mindfulness and how it can help you? Click here for local resources.

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