There is no escaping stress these days. Even the most Zen people in your life have moments when they feel like they’re losing control. Anxiety levels in America are increasing. It may all seem overwhelming, but there is a simple, effective technique that can help. And did we mention that it’s free?
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Yes, we’re talking about deep breathing. It’s one of those things that is so obvious, but so helpful — when you actually do it correctly to help manage anxiety and stress. So, how can you use deep breathing to help you calm down, and why does it work? Dr. Nina Smiley, a psychologist and director of mindfulness programming at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, shared her knowledge on the topic.
Before you dismiss breathing as a stress reducer because you’re not someone who regularly practices yoga or meditation — don’t! No previous experience is required to reap the benefits of deep breathing.
“If you find yourself in a stressful situation, immediately turn your focus to your breathing pattern,” Smiley tells SheKnows.
Start by centering yourself through slow, full breaths.
“As you inhale and exhale, silently say to yourself ‘in’ and ‘out.’ During this cycle, if a thought comes into the mind, gently and non-judgmentally acknowledge it, let it go and return to the breath,” Smiley explains. “Using mindful breathing, you will find your mind more clear and your body more relaxed, allowing you to handle the stressful situation as skillfully as possible.”
For extra-stressful situations when you may be looking for more of a quick-start, Smiley suggests clenching the muscles in your body as you inhale fully and holding your breath for a moment.
“As you breathe out slowly, release all the tension in your body,” she says. “This will help you physically let go of stress. You’ll feel the immediacy of the change as you begin and continue mindful breathing.”
To start with, when you stop (or slow down) what you’re doing to take a breath, it gives you a minute to take a break (even if it’s a short one) from whatever it is that’s causing your stress. But more than that, it has beneficial physical effects on the body.
“Breathing helps us combat stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate and allows you to relax,” Smiley explains. “As you practice breathing and meditation more regularly, you begin to build a new neural path in the brain that you can access during stressful times.”
Ultimately, breathing techniques and meditation can lead to significant benefits, like lowered blood pressure, enhanced focus, improved relationships and increased productivity, Smiley says.
So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress or anxiety, take a minute to breathe — it may help calm you down and put things into perspective.
A version of this story was published May 2018.
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