Sitting in the back of the cab, my palms were sweating and my heart was racing.
I was on the way to what I considered at the time to be one of the biggest career opportunities of my life. In the driver seat was an affable guy in his 50s with a gray ponytail descending from his well-worn camouflage baseball hat. He could see I was stressing, so he started chatting me up through a gap-toothed smile and southern drawl. “Hey, man, you look nervous.” I confirmed, sharing the source of my stress. “You know what man? When I feel like that, I just take a deep breath, like 1-2-3, then pretty soon, ain’t nothin’ botherin’ me.”
Wouldn’t it be great if escaping from stress was that easy? Actually, a growing body of research suggests that proper, controlled breathing can improve heart and lung function while decreasing the negative physical, mental and emotional impact of stress.
I’m not sure my cab driver was privy to this research, but he was definitely on to something.
The Relationship Between Breathing and Stress
The relationship between breathing and stress is interesting. Understand the feelings we associate with stress—tension, hypervigilance, rapid heart, breathing rate, etc.—are designed to keep us alive in critical situations. When we identify danger in any form, our sympathetic nervous systems turbo-charges our bodies to fight the danger, or run away. This has helped us preserve our species through wars, wild animal interactions and other threats since the dawn of man.
While your daily trip to and from work each day rarely involves fighting for your life, modern life has produced new forms of danger to respond to—today, traffic, deadlines, expectations, mortgages, etc., are the new stimuli to the physiological stress response.
Our growing immersion into perceived danger combined with society’s affirmation of a constant stress response has put our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous systems in charge of many mental, emotional and physiological operations. While you can perform in this “emergency mode” for a short time, your capacity in this extreme is limited. Eventually, you will exhaust your physiological, psychological and even neurological resources and your health pays the price.
The good news is that mindful breathing techniques can help you develop greater conscious control over the stress response. Your parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved with “rest and digest” processes in your body, responds to this slow, controlled, mindful breathing.
When you improve your parasympathetic tone (i.e., the degree to which the parasympathetic nervous system is “in charge”), the more your physiological, psychological, and neurological systems work like they should. You feel better, think clearer and act more rationally.
A Simple Mindful Deep Breathing Exercise
To experience the positive impact of mindful breathing, there’s no need to leave your worldly possessions behind and move to the mountains of Tibet. In as little as a few minutes a day at home, at the office or anywhere else stress finds you, you can put a little brainwork into your breathing and experience the benefits.
Give the following technique a try:
- Find a quiet, comfortable place. If neither of these are available, get as comfortable as possible. Lie down, sit or stand. The less work your body and brain have to do to keep you upright and alert, the better.
- Close your eyes. Humans are highly responsive to visual stimuli. Closing your eyes cuts out distraction.
- Place a hand just above your navel and one on the center of your chest.
- Close your mouth. Breathing through the nose warms, moistens and cleans air before it hits the sensitive tissue in your lungs, and it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Begin by taking a deep breath in through your nose. Attempt to breathe in for a 4-count. The exact count is not important initially; it is merely a metric to reinforce breath control.
- As you breathe in, focus on your belly expanding against your hand. Belly expansion reinforces the proper mechanics of your diaphragm to fully fill your lungs with air.
- Your chest should rise only slightly, and only after the belly has fully expanded.
- Be conscious to not allow the shoulders to rise, the head to neck to strain or any other tension-related action.
- Breathe out through either the nose or the mouth for another 4-count.
- Continue this breathing tempo and depth for 60 seconds.
- Attempt to focus primarily on the sound of air coming into your nose and out through your mouth or nose.
After this 60-second exercise, take a personal inventory. How do you feel physically, mentally and emotionally? If you feel like this more often, where could it be an advantage in your life?
Whether you call it mindful breathing, meditation or just relaxation, consider where you may be able to take seconds, minutes or even longer to make it part of your daily life:
- Right after waking up
- While caught in traffic (keep your eyes open!)
- Before bed
- Before a meeting at work
- Prior to a high-stress event
- After lunch
Whenever you need a “1-2-3, ain’t nothin’ botherin’ me” moment, remember to breathe!
One of the best and most accessible tools we can use to decrease stress is to connect with the breath. Learn more about breathing exercises you can integrate into your daily life.