We all have had that experience of an extremely stressful event or moment in time, where once we felt the danger or stress had passed, we fell in a heap and let out a big sigh of relief. But what does that big breath actually do and why is breathing imperative to physical, mental, and emotional health? Below we explore what the breath does to our bodies and state of mind and the benefits we can receive by becoming aware of our breath.
No matter who we are, where we come from, or the environment we grew up in, we’ve all experienced stressful events and situations, some more than others. It’s not so much the events or circumstances that happen but how we perceive them. This makes stress somewhat objective and not something that we can easily categorize but rather a personal daily journey we all find ourselves on. The reasons for our stress are many and varied, however, we are very good at talking ourselves out of, ignoring, and excusing away our feelings, even though our body and emotions are signaling loud and clear that we are indeed stressed at that moment.
What does Stress Feel Like
Let’s start with what stress can feel like and how we can recognize it. Stress and anxiety are closely linked, anxiety generally appears after prolonged stress or because of an extremely stressful or traumatic event. Both have clear physical and emotional signs, some may include, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and negative ruminating thoughts. It can make us feel overwhelmed, scared, and helpless, depending on the circumstance. Extreme stress and anxiety can make us feel isolated and force us to retreat to what we perceive as safety, for many it means hiding out alone at home.
When we feel these feelings and bodily reactions, our mind goes into overdrive, either trying to talk us down, excuse the feelings away, or by exasperating the anxiety and stress sometimes turning it into a full-blown panic attack. But what does breathing have to do with all of this?
What Happens When We Intentionally Breath
Breath is our life force, the reason we continue to live, and something we do automatically thanks to the amazing design of the human body. What some people may not know, is that breathing affects every part of our body, including our mind and emotions, and can help us gain a sense of control during what feels like an out-of-control situation.
When we take deep breaths, signals are sent to our brains, telling us to relax and be calm. These messages are then translated throughout our bodies, reducing tension and relieving stress when we are anxious or feel overwhelmed. Deep breathing is one of the most restorative and rejuvenating things you can do for your body, it taps into the brain-body connection and can have both physical and emotional, long- and short-term benefits by evoking improved mindfulness, a physical reduction in stress, and grounding. With a multitude of breathing techniques, you can find one that works best for you. There is no right or wrong way of breathing, but I have found slow deep long inhale through your nose and then a slow steady exhale out of your mouth is very effective and has done wonders for me. Your mind and body are unique, there are many ways to breathe and calm yourself down and no one will know what’s best for you more than you do.
So please take this opportunity to experiment and see what works best for you. Below are three common and effective different breathing exercises for you to try.
Anxious? Try belly breathing
Taking a deep breath down into the belly area that puffs out when we fill up our lungs. It might be helpful to place a hand on the stomach so we can feel how it rises and falls when we direct our breath there.
Slowly breathe in through the nose and feel the belly push out. Slowly exhale through the mouth and feel the belly draw inwards.
Need to focus? Try box breathing
It might be helpful to imagine a box and its 4 equal sides for this breathing exercise. The visualization will help us breathe and hold our breath for the same number of counts while we trace one corner to the next in our minds, all the way around the box.
Take slow, deep breaths, inhale through your nose for 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale through the mouth for 4, and hold the breath for 4 before we inhale again.
Overwhelmed? Try alternate nostril breathing
Nadi Shodhana is an ancient form of yogic breathing or alternate nostril breathing, a method said to balance the left and right hemispheres in the brain and create a peaceful state of mind. This exercise is best done sitting upright, with a long spine and relaxed shoulders.
Take the right thumb and close the right nostril, inhale slowly and fully through the left nostril, then pause. Use the right ring finger to close off the left nostril. Then release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril. Pause.
Leaving our fingers exactly where they are, we’ll breathe in through the right nostril, then pause. Use the right thumb to close off the right nostril. Then release the right ring finger and exhale through the left nostril. Pause. That’s one full count.
When we’re finished with deep-breathing exercises, we can sit and relax while we return to our normal breathing. While the breath is returning to its natural rhythm, take the moment to notice how the body and mind feel after we took the time to practice a little self-care.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming when confronting our stress, anxiety, or reliving traumatic events. If you would like some help sitting with these difficult emotions, our counsellors are skilled in creating safe enough spaces for you to explore your inner world while receiving compassionate unconditional support.