Did you know that something as simple as changing the way you breathe can positively affect your mood?
Most of us take breathing for granted. It’s not something we really think about, and unless we’re having respiratory issues such as asthma or a chest infection, we don’t tend to notice changes in our breathing over the course of the day. If however, you find yourself feeling strung out, taking note of your breathing can be an effective way to help counteract stress.
Our minds and bodies are closely linked, meaning that mental stress leads to physical symptoms. For example, when we feel overwhelmed or threatened, our heart rate increases, muscles tense up and breathing becomes fast and shallower. This is part of what is known as the ‘stress response’, the body’s built-in survival mechanism which allows us to remain alert and fight an imminent threat. The trouble is that this reaction is only meant to be temporary, and prolonged mental stress can cause a lasting, unwanted physical response.
Continuing to breathe in a fast and shallow manner can actually prolong and even worsen anxiety, which in turn can lead to additional problems such as insomnia. Fortunately you can take action: by being conscious of your breathing.
The next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, take a moment to try the following:
- Begin by placing one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen so that you can become more aware of your body as you breathe.
- Use your diaphragm (the muscle below your ribs) to breathe, rather than your upper chest, and inhale slowly through your nose until you can’t breathe in any more.
- Hold for a count of three.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth until you have emptied your lungs.
- Repeat up to three times, and then resume breathing normally.
You can repeat this sequence as often as you need, but stop if you start to feel faint or dizzy.
To take things a step further, Reachout.com, an online mental health organisation, has devised an app to help people track and change their breathing habits. ReachOut Breathe provides breathing instructions, and measures your heart rate before and after completing the relaxation exercise. It is a great idea for those who prefer a guided exercise, and who want to be able to visualise the calming effects on their body.
If you slowly change your breathing patterns over the course of time, you can begin to prevent anxiety from happening in the first place, or at least stop it in its tracks in the first few moments. Just like meditation, regular practice can help you remain calm in stressful situations, and better manage both the mental and physical symptoms of stress.