Friday, October 12, 2012

to reduce stress and anxiety, just breathe

Ok, who thinks that the world is spinning just a bit too fast and people need to take a chill pill?

Our bodies are hardwired to respond in emergencies, which was a good thing back when we lived in caves and had to to either run like hell from the saber tooth tiger, or try to stab it and take it home for dinner. Think fight or flight. Once we scampered up a tree or relaxed around the fire eating supper, our bodies switched from our sympathetic nervous system (the system in our bodies that trigger the flight or fight response) to our parasympathetic one (which simply stated, slows and relaxes the body).

These days a lot of us are under constant pressure to respond to things we perceive as emergencies--email, traffic, cranky people--to the point where we are in a constant state of "fight or flight". Is it really the end of the world if you don't make that green light or email that Facebook friend? No, didn't think so.

Which brings me to my point today: Breathing. It's an unconscious thing our bodies do, but how we do it effects us on many levels. Ask your average desk jockeys to take a deep breath in and they'll do all kinds of things, like puff up their chests, lift their shoulders, and actually draw their bellies in as they inhale. . . Now, if you've been in a ballet or pilates class you've probably been instructed to breathe into your lower lobes of your rib cage, expanding your ribs out to the sides and to the back, while still drawing in our navel. . . Yoga on the other hand focuses on "breathing into your belly", which is really kind of a misnomer, because if you could force air into your belly you'd probably be a farting, burping mess. You don't actually take air into your belly, but you expand your diaphragm downward on your inhale, which expands your belly and then draw it in on your exhale. Both the yoga breathing and what I call pilates breathing can be very challenging some people, especially those who have practiced one method and then try the other. I have years of ballet and pilates under my belt so yoga breathing was foreign to me when I first tried it.

Anyhoo, have you ever watched a baby breathe? Their little bellies rise and fall as they breathe. They aren't dreaming about saber tooth tigers or stoopid things that stress us out as adults that really shouldn't. Their little parasympathetic nervous systems are just cranking away to remain calm and happy. They haven't been scared, traumatized, or humiliated. Yet. Yes, life can throw some mean stuff our way and how we deal with it can affect us right down to our breathing patterns. So, if you feel a little tight, stressed, tired, sad, anxious, then it's time for some belly breathing.

Here's how to do it.

  • Start by lying down* on your back. If you can rest your legs up at a right angle on a couch or a bunch of pillows that would make the experience even better.
  • place one hand on your lower belly area the other at the base of your sternum (bottom of your rib cage). You can even put a book on your belly under your hand to help guide your breath into the lower abdominal area.
  • take a breath in and expand your belly so your lower hand raises with the belly
  • try to avoid letting your ribs "pop up" under your other hand
  • exhale and feel the belly drop
  • repeat and feel the stress melt away
  • some breathing exercises have you hold your breath. I say just keep breathing, slowly and deeply.**
Simple, and as challenging as that. As you do go through this breathing pattern, your belly, lower ribcage and back should expand, or open, so your diaphragm--which is a muscle-- can dip down into your abdominal area. As you exhale and your draw your abs in, your diaphragm draws up and helps influence the function of your heart. All of this helps stimulate blood flow, promote relaxation, and reduce your heart rate. And all you had to do it breathe.

* You can do breathing exercises sitting or standing, but for newbies, the floor gives you support and makes it easier. Once you've mastered it on your back, try it in the car or while walking behind slowpokes at the mall. Remember, breathe and relax….
** if you have health issues, please read my disclaimer at the bottom of the blog

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