Stress, what does this word mean to you?
Stress is not always a bad thing. We require a certain amount of stress in order to adapt and grow. For example, in physical exercise, we push our bodies to an extreme, causing our muscles and aerobic system to become stressed. It is this stress that makes us stronger and fitter during the recovery process. This is “good” stress. To the contrary, in today’s society, we are under chronic stress from work, the 24-hour news cycle, and poor nutrition habits causing our bodies to break down.
In Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, he explains how the stress of a job from long work hours, work-family conflict, and lack of good health insurance are killing people. A large fraction of the health care costs in the developed world, some estimate up to 75%, is from chronic diseases. There is a growing number of studies coming out that suggest these chronic diseases such as cardiovascular issues, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome along with poor health choices like overeating, drug and alcohol abuse are caused by stress. The American Institute of Stress reports that job-related stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults costing over $300 billion annually as a result of diminished productivity, employee turnover, direct medical, insurance, legal cost, absenteeism and worker’s compensation.
“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Thich Nhat Hanh
How do we work to combat this stress?
One piece of low hanging fruit to combat detrimental stress is to become aware of your breathing. Dr. Leon Chaitow goes into great detail in his book, Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders, about how breathing influences every system in your body. Dysfunctional Breathing Patterns (“DBP”), i.e. breathing into the upper-chest, mainly with the mouth, and not activating the diaphragm is associated with the body’s stress response keeping the body in a chronically stressed state. DBP are associated with issues such as anxiety, asthma, insomnia, and cardiovascular issues to name a few. When we learn to breathe properly, (through the nose, activating our diaphragm), this puts our nervous system in the parasympathetic state, allowing us to rest, relax, and digest. This allows our bodies to get out of the stressful state, lower our heart rate, improves cognitive function, and increases creativity.
The first step in learning how to breathe properly and change your state of mind is awareness. We must become aware of how we are breathing throughout the day and how our emotions affect our breathing pattern. I want you to try something. Start breathing in and out of your mouth at a rapid pace, like you just went for a sprint. How did this make you feel? Did you become stressed and anxious or calm and relaxed? Now, breathe slowly in through your nose and slowly out through your nose. How did your state change? Explore and become aware of these polarities of the breath and your mental state.
The next step is to begin a conscious breath practice. Like anything new, we start slow and work our way into it, just like a new workout regime. A great way to start your breath practice is with five to ten minutes in the morning doing a practice the Navy Seals use called “box-breathing.” The breath has four components, an inhale, a hold, an exhale, and a hold. With box-breathing, we keep an equal ratio for each part. Start with inhaling for three seconds, hold for three, exhale for three, hold for three. As you become comfortable increase to four, five seconds and so on. What you will find is your body and mind are in a much more relaxed and alert state after only a short amount of time.
As you find yourself getting stressed during the day, focus on inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the nose. Try to extend your exhale longer than your inhale. This will help slow down your heart rate and calm the mind. As you become more experienced, you can calm yourself in as little as a few breaths.
Another important factor in our overall health and wellness is our sleep. There is an abundance of research coming out that proper sleep is critical for our well-being. This is another area where a breath practice can help. If you struggle with sleep, try five minutes of nasal breathing inhaling for three or four seconds and exhaling for six to eight. It doesn’t matter what timeframe you choose as long as it is not stressful and you double the exhale to inhale. It is also important that you breathe through your nose while sleeping. If you find yourself snoring or waking up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth, I recommend mouth taping. It might sound crazy but it will do wonders for your sleep. There is a company called Somnifix that makes tape solely for this purpose.
To Sum it Up
This article is a short introduction on how to use your breath to combat stress in your everyday life. We tend to go through life breathing on autopilot. It is time to make the breath conscious. Conscious breathing is a powerful tool that can improve your life. If you are a skeptic like I was, try it for yourself. It only takes five minutes a day to start and you can do it before you get out of bed in the morning. I encourage you to begin your day box breathing and see how it changes your mental state throughout the day.
Call To Action
If you enjoyed this post, check out my website www.symmetry.live to learn more about how I can help change your relationship with stress. I also write a weekly newsletter called The Long Game. It is for people that want to grow and challenge themselves. It is about the drive to better ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually while having the curiosity to enjoy the journey.