Stress is something we all experience on a regular basis. Whether it be pressures from work, conflict in our home life or simply taking on more than we can handle, stress gets to us all at times.
Though a little stress is normal, too much can have a serious impact on our health and wellbeing. In fact, stress has been linked to serious health conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, depression, anxiety and even Alzheimer's. Not to mention the possible short-term side effects such as insomnia, headaches and even an irritable digestive system.
For many people, the process of learning to manage stress comes down to balancing their lives with enough relaxation and down time needed to counteract all the stress they experience on a daily basis. Exercise, meditation and other relaxing activities such as going for a walk in nature, enjoying a hot bath or reading a book, are all excellent ways of combating stress.
But these do not address the symptoms of stress as it arises. It’s not always possible to just drop everything and go for a walk or practice meditation. Fortunately, there is a simple and natural way in which you can help calm your mind and body when you are faced with a stressful situation: controlled abdominal breathing.
When your body experiences significant stress levels, your body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in, preparing you for a ‘flight or fight’ response. The reason for this dates back to when we had to fend for our lives against predators. These days the flight or fight response is not always necessary, yet we still experience it. One of the biggest indicators that this is happening is a change in the flow of your breathing.
When you are stressed, angry or scared, your breathing tends to alter from its normal relaxed state (abdominal breathing) to short and shallow breaths that flow from your upper chest (thoracic breathing). This reduced oxygen intake and carbon dioxide release only works to exacerbate the experience of stress. So it really isn’t helpful at all.
In order to help calm both your mind and body during stressful situations, you can consciously alter your breathing back to its natural relaxed state.
- Start by taking a few moments to observe how you are breathing.
- Consciously try to relax your belly, and slow and deepen your breath.
- Allow your belly to gently rise and fall with each breath so that you know you have activated your diaphragm.
- Sometimes it can help to mentally count the breath (breathing in 1...Breathing out 1 etc), as a means of helping calm and focus your mind.
- Remember there is no need to strain your breathing, abdominal breathing should be relaxed and comfortable. In fact, it is our natural state of breathing when we are completely relaxed, like when we are sleeping!
Abdominal breathing might not make the stressful situation go away, but it will help counteract your sympathetic nervous system and calm you down so that you can respond to the situation in a relaxed manner.