Daily life often seems to challenge us with an endless stream of stressors. At times, stress can lead us to take action in a positive direction for ourselves. But, often, our biological stress response takes over in a way that hurts us rather than helps us. Luckily, we can take conscious control over parts of the stress response through the way we breathe.
Stress on its own doesn’t exist; it is the response to a perceived emotional or physical threat. In humans, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis, or HPA axis, is key to the stress response by employing hormones, such as cortisol, to redistribute energy in the body quickly. These hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system to ramp up the heart rate while intensifying the breathing pattern, bringing extraordinary power to the muscles. From an evolutionary perspective, this system works wonders. The appearance of a predator activates the fight-or-flight response, which enables the individual to react appropriately. After the stressor is dealt with, the body returns to a state of restful calm.
Today, our bodies aren’t always so fortunate to enjoy a calm period after experiencing stress. Life provides no shortage of challenges. You may be worried about feeding your family or making rent, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing loss, struggling through work. You may be experiencing fear, uncertainty, anxiety, addiction, or a myriad of mental health disorders at once. No matter what causes it, the experience of stress is not hidden solely in your mind but experienced and expressed physically in the body as well.
As our bodies often do not get a chance to fully come to rest, we instead adapt to a state of perpetual fight-or-flight mode. Medically this is known as chronic stress, and it is associated with a multitude of adverse health effects, significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders.
While the looming effects of chronic stress can seem overwhelming, we have many tools at our disposal to counter and prevent its risks. Ancient yogic practices, along with modern scientific trials, point towards conscious breathing as a critical tool to handle stress. While the techniques come in various flavors, a common theme addresses the stress response through direct activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This calming system becomes activated through long, drawn-out exhalations coupled with gentle inhalations. Another commonality among techniques focuses on fully expanding the diaphragm instead of allowing the entire breath to sit in the upper chest. When done correctly, you can experience positive health effects on the cardiovascular system, cognition, mood, digestion, and immune system.
A variety of breathing techniques have gained popularity in the west. One method, called box breathing, is even popular among military personnel. In this method, you begin by getting comfortable, however you like, and exhaling fully. Then, you slowly inhale through the nose to a count of four and hold the breath at the top for another count of four. Next, exhale for a count of four, and finally, hold at the bottom for another count of four. Repeating this process can bring you out of an anxious state and prepare your body and mind to enter a state of rest and calm.
Purposeful breathing provides a fantastic opportunity to bring mindfulness into play in several ways. One can simply focus on the sensation of the breath as it rises and falls. Another approach involves performing a body scan and taking note of any physical tension that arises, allowing each exhalation to sink you deeper into relaxation. Alternatively, you could practice deep breathing while allowing any negative, upsetting, or intrusive thoughts or energy to be carried away with each exhalation, while gently returning focus to the arising sensations of the breath on the inhale.
Many ancient practices exist to improve health and overcome stress. Yoga is often defined as the practice of bringing together the mind, body, and spirit. Crucial to this process is mindful breathing, called Pranayama, which is considered essential to our vital life force’s integrity. While any of the practices discussed above could be regarded as Pranayama, there are different breaths and poses with specific goals. For example, Lion’s Breath utilizes a powerful exhalation from the back of the throat while sighing, paired with letting the tongue hang out while rolling the eyes back. It is said to be mentally and physically invigorating, stretching, and warming muscles while relieving tension. According to the yogic tradition, Lion’s Breath also opens the throat chakra, helping individuals gain confidence while calming the mind.
Many more types of breathwork exist, including Skull Shining Breath, Conqueror Breath, alternating nostril breathing, Wim Hoff breathing, rebirthing, and holotropic breathing. While some methods focus simply on calming the body, others aim to access deep aspects of our physiology to resolve long-buried tension and traumas.
Our lives demand that we deal with stress daily. While our bodies evolved to deal with stress in the short term, the long term effects of chronic stress can be devastating to our physical and mental health. The practice of mindful breathing can relieve stress by simultaneously calming the body and mind. Simple techniques, such as box breathing, are easy to learn and always available to practice. Safe Harbor offers a more in-depth look into the practice of breathwork in our multifaceted approach to healing and recovery. Don’t let a life of past trauma define who you are. Located in Orange County, CA, Safe Harbor can give you the tools to transform your suffering from addiction and mental health disorders by fostering an environment of love, safety, and support. We understand how difficult it can be to deal with your mental health symptoms, but we are here to take that first step with you. Call (833) 580-1473 today.