One of the easiest and most effective coping skills is to focus on your breath. Stop what you are doing, take a break, and just breathe - when you feel stressed, when feel overwhelmed. It is important to breathe properly. (See health benefits below.) Many people do not breathe naturally, from the diaphragm, a large muscle in your abdomen. When you breathe from your chest, you take short, shallow breaths, and this can actually increase anxiety. When you breathe from the diaphragm, also called a "belly breath," you are calmer and more relaxed. Take a few minutes now and practice:
- Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down. If sitting, make sure that you keep your back straight and release the tension in your shoulders. Have your feet resting flat on the floor. Let your shoulders drop.
- Then close your eyes.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Take a few breaths, and pay attention to your belly rising with each in-breath and falling with each out-breath.
- If your chest rises and falls, practice breathing, allowing only the belly to rise and fall when you breathe in and out. Imagine a balloon being inflated on the in-breath and deflated on the out-breath.
- It is important to focus on your body as you breathe. Do not continue "thinking" stressful thoughts.
- Stay in the moment. Pay attention to the sensations in your body - to the air as it goes into your nostrils, to the air leaving your body on the out-breath, to the sensation of your belly rising and falling. Open your senses.
- Your attention is likely to stray. Notice when your mind wanders and gently bring it back to the present moment. Continue to focus on your breathing.
- Continue to breathe and to consciously, intentionally relax your body.
You may want to "stop and breathe" a few times a day - for just a few minutes at a time. The benefits are increased, though, when you extend your times of focused breathing. The average adult normally takes about 23,000 breaths in a day. Using this natural function of breathing as a way to relax also improves your sense of overall well-being. It is an accessible, relatively easy way to cope with your stress.
Mindfulness is about focusing on one thing in the moment. It is an intentional choice to be more fully aware of your life. Breathing is a part of mindfulness practice. You can focus on your breath while you eat, walk, or wash dishes. You can focus on your breath while you are in a stressful situation, talking to an attorney or to law enforcement. You can take mini-breaks. You can practice the Relaxation Response for 10-20 minutes (See below.) You can do a longer progressive relaxation while lying down for 30-40 minutes. Called a body scan, this form of relaxation, as well as sitting meditation and yoga, is helpful in healing both body and mind. (See Full Catastrophe Living by Jon-Kabat Zinn.
There are many health benefits of focused breathing. It is a meditation technique recommended in most hospitals and can be used to manage various health problems, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, stress, panic attacks, and self-esteem problems. Relaxation breathing can be used to help manage physical and emotional symptoms related to chronic illness, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University researched the effects of breathing in the late 1960s and developed the Relaxation Response. He discovered that people who used the Relaxation Response altered their normal stress response by slowing the heart rate and breathing rates, improving relaxation. His book, The Relaxation Response, describes a simple, easy-to-learn technique that can be used daily (or several times a day) to help reduce and relieve stress and tension. When practice the Relaxation Response, set aside 10-20 minutes of uninterrupted time.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
- Close your eyes.
- Relax all the muscles in your body, starting with the feet and continuing up to the head.
- Focus on the breath and breathing, while relaxing the muscles, breathing deeply in and then letting the breath out.
- Count your breaths.
- Voice the number of breaths.
- Continue breathing and counting the breaths for 10-20 minutes.
- Once finished with the breathing exercise, sit quietly for a few extra minutes.
- Gradually open your eyes.
- Enjoy the feeling of relaxation.
Another prolonged deep breathing technique is also effective in relaxing your body.
- Lie on the back.
- Slowly relax the body.
- Begin to inhale slowly in and out through your nose. (Be sure to breathe in slowly, over 8-10 seconds.)
- Hold your full breath for a second or two.
- Then quietly and gently relax and let the air out.
- Wait a few seconds and repeat this cycle. (Becoming dizzy is an indication of over-breathing. Slow down the breathing rate.)
- Continue this breathing technique for as long you like or until you relax.
Below are some additional breathing exercises.
Stopping and focusing on your breathing will help you find the a place of calm in the middle of the storm.
- Measuring your breath by your footsteps: Walk slowly in a yard, along a sidewalk, on a path, or in a hallway. Breathe normally. Determine the length of your breath, the exhalation and the inhalation, by the number of your footsteps. Continue for a few minutes. Begin to lengthen your exhalation by one step. Do not force a longer exhalation. Let it be natural. Watch your inhalation carefully to see whether there is a desire to lengthen it. Continue for 10 breaths. Now lengthen the exhalation by one more footstep. Watch to see whether the inhalation also lengthens by one step or not. Only lengthen the inhalation when you feel that it will give delight. After 20 breaths, return your breath to normal. About 5 minutes later, you can begin the practice of lengthened breaths again. When you feel the least bit tired, return to normal. After several sessions of the practice of lengthened breath, your exhalation and inhalation will grow in equal length. Do not practice long, equal breaths for more than 10 to 20 breaths before returning to normal.
- Counting your breath: Sit in a quiet room or stand quietly or take a walk. Focus on your breath as your sit, stand, or walk. Be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. When you inhale, be aware and say, "I am inhaling.? When you exhale, be aware and say, "I am exhaling." Then repeat. Remember to breathe from the stomach.