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  • Writer's pictureJan Johnson

Beat Stress and Anxiety with Better Breathing

breathe word spelt out in coloured felt letters

I usually begin my reflexology sessions with a short, guided breathing exercise combined with soothing pressure to the solar plexus reflex. This technique brings a calming effect to my client who may have arrived straight from a stressful day at work or driven through busy traffic. Before the treatment begins, this short prelude slows the heart rate and the mind calms as the focus is taken within the body, enabling my client to retreat from outside cares for their hour of reflexology.

“Take a deep breath” will probably be familiar advice given to relieve a stressful situation

You could say that breathing is as natural as – er – breathing! Surely, we don’t need instruction on how to do it. Most people take short shallow breaths. This can have the effect of draining your energy or making you feel anxious. Overbreathing or hyperventilation is a problem that can affect us when we are nervous or anxious. This is when you inhale faster and deeper than normal, disrupting the balance of oxygen and carbon-dioxide. Some may not even be aware they are doing it but it can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, feeling faint and frequent yawning or sighing. Focused, controlled breaths can help to alleviate overbreathing. The phrase “Take a deep breath” will probably be familiar advice given to relieve a stressful situation. Rather than relying on the autonomic nervous system to regulate the rate of breathing, we can proactively take control. Simple breathing exercises relieve stress and relax both body and mind, and can offer many benefits to overall health.

Benefits of controlled breathing

  • Calms anxiety by normalising the heart rate, increasing oxygen levels and aids in releasing endorphins.

  • Boosts immunity. The increase in oxygen in blood, cells and tissues improves performance and aids in fighting infection.

  • Improves sleep by signalling the body to calm.

  • Improves digestion. Increased oxygen aids in better absorption of vitamins and minerals from food, combined with the relaxing effect on the digestive organs.

  • Benefits cardiovascular health as mindful breathing strengthens muscles around the heart and improves blood pressure.

  • Improves focus and mood by sending more oxygen to the brain and reducing stress.

  • Reduces muscle tension and headaches due to the relaxing effect.

  • Reduces hot flushes in menopause. Deep, slow breathing may help to lessen the frequency and intensity of hot flushes by reducing the stress chemical, cortisol, which naturally rises in menopause due to lowered oestrogen levels.

Woman taking a deep breath

Breathing exercises for lower stress and better health

Calming breathing techniques bestow the most benefit if done regularly as part of your daily routine. They can be done sitting, standing or lying down but the key is to be as comfortable as possible. Keep your body relaxed and balanced on both sides i.e., with both feet flat on the floor or both arms resting equally. It may also help to close your eyes and visualise the air around you filled with peace and calm. As you inhale, try to feel it’s power throughout your body. As you breathe out, imagine your unwanted stress and emotions draining away. You will find a myriad of different breathing exercises online but here are two easy techniques to get you started.

Abdominal breathing

  1. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.

  2. Let your breath flow deeply down to the abdomen but try not to force it.

  3. Inhale to a count of 5 (or as far as you can comfortably go).

  4. Without a pause, let the breath flow out gently, again to a count of 5.

  5. Repeat for 3 to 5 minutes.

4-7-8 Breathing

  1. Exhale fully through the mouth.

  2. Close your mouth and inhale through the nose for 4 counts.

  3. Hold the breath for 7 counts.

  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 counts.

  5. Repeat the cycle up to 4 times.

For anyone suffering from a respiratory illness such as asthma or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder), it is advisable to check with your GP as these exercises may not be suitable. Your medical specialist could offer particular breathing techniques to help your condition.

Each breath we take is a precious gift so often taken for granted. It supplies us with life-giving oxygen and cleanses our bodies of waste as carbon-dioxide. Spend a few minutes a day to pause, give your lungs a grateful hug; and take a deep breath.

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