The Stress-Busting Tool We All Have — But Forget to Use

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What if there was one simple, user-friendly way to promote well-being and decrease stress in any situation? An approach that was scientifically validated, with the capacity to make a difference almost immediately?

Actually, there is. And it's available to all of us at every moment.

Research shows that breath awareness is among the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system.

We've all heard (and given) the advice "just breathe" or "take a deep breath." If you've tried this for a moment or two when you’re feeling scared or stressed, you've probably noticed that something shifts just a little bit.

But creating a practice of consciously focusing on your breath can make an impact not just on those occasional moments of panic but also on the inevitable ups and downs of daily life. The breath can be a powerful vehicle for carrying you through everything from difficult emotions and tense confrontations to intense cravings and physical pain.

According to Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg, authors of The Healing Power of the Breath, breathing practices "shift the stress-response system into a healthier balance by activating the healing, recharging part of the nervous system while quieting the defensive, energy-burning parts." In other words, the sympathetic nervous system (the primal "fight, flight, or freeze" system) takes a step back, and the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" or "calm and connect" system) is activated.

This has an immediate effect on all the body's systems. The heart, lungs, and brain become synchronized, resulting in increased blood flow and oxygen intake and inducing up to a tenfold improvement in heart-rate variability (a biological measure of stress resilience). All of this beneficial activity results in a stronger sense of calm and clarity — a perfect example of the feedback loop we call the mind/body connection.

Additionally, research on yogic breathing techniques, known as pranayama, have shown that particular breath regulation practices have specific positive benefits.

"Experienced yogis know that different pranayama practices produce specific effects: Some techniques are meant to increase one's energy, others to quiet it," yoga teacher Angela Wilson explains. "Some boost metabolism; others decrease it."

Wilson cites studies showing that alternate nostril breathing can lower blood pressure and increase vagal tone (the vagus nerve is a major player in the stress response). Another study showed that a yogic breathing practice known as Kapalabhati actually increased cognitive function, while an eight-week mindfulness program that included conscious breathing was shown to be effective for adults and adolescents with ADHD.

Focused breathing seems to be a particularly attractive tool for teenagers; researchers and faculty for the Kripalu Yoga in the Schools program, which has developed a yoga-based curriculum specifically for adolescents, say that teens exposed to the curriculum consistently report using the breath to self-regulate before tests and to calm down when they're in conflict with friends or family.

Breath awareness practice can be as simple as one, two, three — literally. Gerbarg and Brown say that taking five or six slow, deep breaths per minute is optimal for enhancing heart-rate variability. You can always use conscious breathing during stressful moments, but integrating it into your daily life will give you even better results: The more you practice, the more you'll increase your stress resilience and your physical and emotional balance.

Don't know where to start?

Here's a simple breathing practice for improved well-being.

  1. Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed, and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
  2. Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand. You might try counting up to five, seven, or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as "breathing in calm" or simply "breathing in."
  3. Breathe out slowly through either the nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation, making sure the exhale is as long or longer than the inhale, or use a phrase, such as "Breathing out calm" or simply "Breathing out."
  4. If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
  5. Repeat for several minutes.
  6. Notice how you feel. Your body is probably more relaxed; your mind is calmer.

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