The busy workweek often leaves little time for rest, but letting anxiety build up can allow it to dominate your life! Even the way we breathe can help ease some of that burden. In return, you’ll find that you sleep better, feel better, and have more time for the things you love.
Whether your week is swamped with errands, parent events at school, a busy job, or a tumultuous love-life, you may be letting your anxiety get out of control. The result? High blood pressure, low attention span, increased fatigue, weight gain, and the list goes on and on. Therefore, these breathing exercises to ease anxiety can help you confront your busy week confidently, calm your nerves before important meetings or presentations, control your body and mind, and be more yourself with the people you love.
What is Deep Breathing?
First, I need to clarify what it means to breathe “deep” and “shallow.” The difference contains all the secrets to breathing for necessity versus breathing for comfort.
When you breathe normally, many of us breathe into our chests – these are called shallow breaths. This kind of breathing increases your heart rate and muscle tension, signaling your body to begin the physical process of stress response. It’s no accident that when we’re scared or in danger, we breathe in quick, shallow breaths like this.
Oppositely, abdominal or deep breathing opens and expands our diaphragm and belly. These breaths even out our stress response, reduce anxiety, and increase our oxygen intake. When all of us were infants in our cribs, we breathed this way naturally! It’s how we achieved that relaxing, full-body sleep that only babies can. But we forgot how.
Now that you know the difference between shallow and deep breaths, use these simple exercises to try and reclaim the relaxation you forgot.
Exercise #1: Sitting Breath
When you’re sitting at home or work, become aware of your breathing in an attempt to change it from shallow to deep. Inhale through your nose deliberately and deeply. You should feel your belly expand more than your chest. Exhale out of your mouth slowly, opening your mouth only slightly.
Do this every day, not only when you feel stressed but regularly, even once an hour. Set an alarm to remind yourself!
Exercise #2: The Book Technique
Some of you may not know exactly what the difference between shallow and deep breathing is. That’s not surprising, since most of us have been doing it wrong for decades! The book technique is a simple way to help train yourself to feel the difference. It also forces you to set aside time specifically for breathing and relaxing.
It’s simple – lay on your back with a book of any size on your belly. Place your hand on your chest. Breathe in and focus on moving the book up and down with your breath and not moving your hand at all. Eventually, you’ll be able to breathe this way without the book.
Exercise #3: The Long Exhale
Our understanding of breathing as it relates to stress relief is a little incorrect. Actually, it’s not the inhale that relaxes us but the exhale. That’s the part linked to our parasympathetic nervous system, the one that helps us calm down and feel safe.
This means that your breathing needs to focus on exhaling, which is why this exercise helps you relax. Before taking a big belly breath, exhale all the way out (push!). Then relax into your inhale before exhaling again, making sure that breathing out takes longer (try for 4 seconds in and 6 out).
Focus on the long exhale for 5 minutes, a few times a day.
Exercise #4: Focused Breathing
You can sit or lie down to do focused breathing, but I would recommend that you do this by itself, rather than at work. The point is to zero in on your breath to calm yourself down, without distractions.
Focused breathing uses a bit of meditation technique. As you inhale and exhale like normal, try to focus on how all the parts of your body feel, how your jaw relaxes, how your ribs expand, how your heart beats, and so on. Take a slow breath through your nose and into your belly. Exhale normally, without thinking about it.
Now for the focus. Pick a word you’d like to say while you exhale (I like to use “calm” or “well”). Say it as you exhale, focusing on expelling bad energy on the out-breath, and acquiring good energy on the in-breath. Be aware of your body and the gentle rhythm of your breath.
Deep breathing is the secret to using our breath to ease anxiety. Calming down requires us to remember how we breathed as babies, which focused on expanding our bellies and soothing our nerves with long exhales.
As adults, we expend a ton of energy on work and it all translates into physical and mental stress. Use these exercises to practice daily breathing that can help you regain control of your nervous system even when things get hectic. At the end of your long day, focus on your breathing to relax yourself to sleep. If you remember how to be a baby, you may feel like one too!