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Breathing your way through stress

Have you ever noticed how you breathe? It goes without saying but how you breathe might just save your life!!! In a study that examined heart attack patients, 100% were chest-breathers.

So, what exactly is chest-breathing?

Chest-breathing is when you have so much contraction and restriction in your body that the air you breathe is not able to fully infiltrate the lungs. When chest-breathing, your belly and diaphragm do not expand, and the air is exchanged in the upper most part of the lungs.

You can easily check this by putting one hand on your lower belly and one hand on your chest. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Notice if your belly is expanding and contracting or remaining still. If there is no movement in your lower belly than your breath is being restricted. Your breathing pattern will change throughout the day, so you could try this exercise in different settings. When you are relaxed your breathing will most likely involve your lower belly and when you are in states of stress you are more likely to breathe in your chest. Many people constantly live in a state of stress – even at low levels - and therefore breathe predominantly in their chest.

Studies found that the survivors of heart attacks who participated in an exercise and breathing recovery program experienced a 50% reduction in their risk of having another heart attack. This result was not found with the exercise practice alone.

But don’t get depressed! Just breathe….

And the breath is your key to taking control of your body and the way it reacts to stress. You may not be able to control stressful situations, but you do have control over the way your body deals with stress.

It’s been estimated that between 75 - 90% of all physician visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints. Under the stress response your body prepares for fight or flight. This is a great response system when you are really in danger and you have to run from life-threatening situations, but overuse of this system has detrimental effects on the body. Some of the physical responses include:

  • Elevated blood pressure

  • Stress hormones flooding the body

  • Weakened stomach and digestive process

  • Tightening muscles

  • Constricted blood flow

  • Changes in brain function

  • Over-stimulation of the nervous system

  • Weakened immune response

Over a period of time, these responses lead to a variety of physical and psychological diseases such as autoimmune disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and the list goes on.

Many of us go through the day – and indeed an entire life - not aware that our body is constantly under the stress response. But the breath is an easy and fast way to check-in and notice if you are stressed and change the way you breathe accordingly.

Here are two exercises you can use to rewire your stress response:

The Full Breath:

  1. Place your hands on your lower belly. Breathe five breaths into your lower belly, allowing the belly to rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.

  2. Place your hands on your rib-cage. Breathe five breaths into your rib- cage allowing it to expand as you breathe in and contract as you breathe out.

  3. Bring your hands to your chest. Breathe five breaths into your chest. Allow your chest to rise and fall with your breath.

  4. Bring one hand to your lower belly and leave one hand on your chest. For the next 10-20 breaths see if you can breathe evenly throughout these 3 sections of the lungs. First sending your breath to your lower belly, and then allowing it to rise into the ribs and finally send it up into the chest. Allow your exhale to release the breath in the opposite manner.

  5. Close your eyes and notice the effects of your breath work.

Alternate Nostril Breathing:

  1. Bring your right hand up to your face. Place your thumb on your right nostril. Your Pointer and middle finger between your eyebrows and your ring and pinky finger on your left nostril.

  2. Close your right nostril and bring a full breath in through your left nostril.

  3. Notice the space between your inhale and exhale. You can elongate this space by a few seconds.

  4. Now close your left nostril and open your right nostril and let the exhale out of your right nostril.

  5. Again, notice the space between the exhale and before the inhale

  6. Bring a full inhale through the right nostril. Continue alternating sides for 10-20 breaths

These practices are instantaneously beneficial if you find yourself in a stress response. But they are also beneficial in preventing a stress response when practiced regularly. If possible, schedule time aside to practice each day. Just 5 minutes one or two times a day can have dramatic effects on your health. If it’s not possible you can integrate these stress relieving breathing practices into your daily activities. Try the deep breath as you commute to work, clean the house or work on the computer. Use the alternative nostril breath when you are waiting for an appointment, sitting in the bathroom or watching TV.

Just take it one breath at a time.

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