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Amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, relaxation can seem like an out-of-reach fantasy. If your friends and family have ever told you to “just breathe,” they were right. “Just breathing” is often the first step in learning how to relax spontaneously, but it takes a little practice.
Relaxation happens quickly, even after only a few minutes. Focused concentration on breathing by itself is a simple and profoundly effective relaxation technique that can be done nearly any time you have a few minutes — while waiting at a stoplight, during a break at the office, or while waiting for water to boil.
Breathing is unique in that it's an automatic response that can also be controlled with voluntary actions. When we control our breathing it ties into other autonomic responses. Slowing the rate of breathing is associated with a decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, and — very importantly — decreased adrenaline levels. Slowed breathing also is associated with increased production of endorphins, those wonderful internal chemicals that improve our sense of wellbeing.
Most of us breathe with our chest muscles. The more uptight we are, the shorter and shallower the breath becomes, and the more tension there is in the shoulders and neck. When relaxed, we use abdominal breathing: instead of using the chest wall muscles, we're then using mainly the diaphragm.
You may have heard someone tell you to "just breathe," but if you're wondering how to do that — you're breathing all the time, right? — here are three simple ways to start you on the path to relaxation:
1. Practice abdominal breathing.
Start by first lying comfortably on your back. Control and slow your breathing to an easy rhythm. Place one hand on the abdomen, close to the belly button. As you breathe, try to keep the chest wall still and pull air into the lungs by expanding the abdominal muscles. Your hand should rise and fall with each breath. Breathing should be done through the nose, not through the mouth. Inhalations and exhalations should be equal.
2. Learn to slow your breath.
Using abdominal breathing, try to extend your breath for as long as possible without holding your breath. Inspiration and expiration should be equal. On your first attempts, your inspiration and expiration will be about 5-7 seconds each, but your goal is to extend each to 15 seconds, resulting in only 2 complete breaths in one minute. Don’t strain. Make it easy and comfortable. Work up to 15 seconds slowly. You can practice this one anywhere, even at a stoplight.
3. Count to 10:
Another simple breathing exercise is sequential count-to-10. Using abdominal breathing of normal length, begin counting each breath. Count first to up to 2 and then start over, 1-2-3. Continue with 1-2-3-4, and so forth, up to the sequence 1-10. It takes more concentration than you can imagine. Completion of two sequences of 10 often results in deep relaxation with lowered pulse rate and normalized blood pressure. This is also a great exercise to improve focus.