Mindful Breathing Exercises
Many people believe stress is all in the mind. But dealing with stressful situations, such as having to give a presentation or driving in heavy traffic, can have physiological consequences. “Such situations can make you breathe more shallowly or hold your breath, and you don’t even realize you’re doing it,” says Robert Fried, Ph.D., a respiratory psychophysiologist and director of the stress biofeedback clinic at the Institute for Rational Emotive and Behavior Therapy in New York. “In turn, shallow, rapid breathing can cause you to hyperventilate, in which case you’ll exhale more carbon dioxide and eventually reduce the blood flow to your brain.” When that happens, you’ll feel less comfortable and less in control at a time when you need to be at your best.
The breathing techniques described below can help you combat stress by increasing blood flow to the brain.
When you have to relax fast, belly breathing can be done in seconds. “You’ll increase the amount of air you take in with each breath if you concentrate on making your abdomen move out as you inhale and in as you exhale. This increases the oxygen to your brain and can produce a calming effect,” Dr. Fried says.
Breathe through your nose when you do this exercise. “You’ll take in more air than you might otherwise,” he says.
Using imagery will help you further deepen your breathing and slow its pace. “Getting caught up in the image can help you naturally take in more air with each breath,” he says. “As you inhale, close your eyes and imagine the air swirling into your nose and down into your lungs. As you exhale, imagine the air swirling back out again.”
It’s also helpful to repeat statements to yourself that are consistent with what’s physiologically occurring in your body. “Inhaling and exhaling are controlled by two different parts of the brain,” he says. “Inhaling has an excitatory effect, exhaling an inhibitory effect.” To produce these effects when you breathe, say to yourself while inhaling, “I’m awake. I’m alert. I’m full of energy.” When exhaling, say, “I’m relaxed. I’m comfortable. I’m in control.”
“Learning to use belly breathing for relaxation is a wonderful tool if you can learn to do it effectively in four or five breaths,” Dr. Fried says. But it’s not for everybody. “Try something else if you can’t do this exercise and relax in three to four breaths,”he says. Another caveat: Belly breathing may not be advisable for people with certain medical conditions, such as kidney disease or diabetes.
The ujjayi breath, a yoga technique, can provide a sense of calmness that’s otherwise difficult to achieve when you have a million things to do. “Rather than thinking about everyday worries, such as needing to buy groceries, you’re in the moment,” says Christina Haberek, a private yoga instructor in Lake Placid, N.Y.
To perform this technique, sit in a comfortable position and slightly close your mouth. Shut your eyes and gently press your tongue against the roof of your mouth while inhaling, fully filling your lungs. “As you inhale, the air should travel over the roof of your mouth and through the back of your throat, making a ‘sa’ sound,” she says.
Hold your breath for one or two seconds, then exhale softly and slowly. “As you exhale, the air should travel through the back of the throat and make a ‘ha’ sound,” Ms. Haberek says. “When you’re first trying this breathing technique, you might not feel a sense of serenity immediately. You may have to practice it for 5 to 10 minutes a day.”