The simple act of breathing. It seems so obvious, and it is. And, well, it isn’t. The thing is it depends on what tools you have to learn how to breathe for relaxation.
One of the tools I incorporate into client coaching sessions is breathing. Yes, they’re already doing it. But this is nearly always in a superficial manner, where they are shallow breathing into their chests.
Why does this matter? Well, shallow breathing tends to go hand in hand with stress and anxiety.
As a Harvard Health article puts it:
Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
Quite frequently, new clients tell me at the start of a coaching session that they’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or anxious.
When we do a check in on what’s going on in the body, they’re holding their breath or breathing into their chest, and holding their stomachs in. Women, in particular (and I realise this is a generalisation), go through life holding their bellies in. The ubiquitous ‘flat stomach’ that is prized in western society is usually influencing the way we hold our bodies, whether consciously or not.
This results in tension in the abdominal area and often contributes to holding your breath.
In an HBR article on stress and breathing last year, the authors noted that:
Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities (in contrast to the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of our “fight or flight” responses). Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better. And your ability to think rationally returns.https://hbr.org/2020/09/research-why-breathing-is-so-effective-at-reducing-stress
Now, I don’t know what your relationship is with breathing. For me, times when I had tried to ‘breathe deeply’ were a big, fat fail: yoga classes and some mediations where we spent part of the time focused on breathing, just did my head in.
Why? Because it would accentuate my shallow breathing. I felt too stressed, anxious and tight in my chest to allow the breath to go deeper. Attempts to slowly breathe in and hold the breath just resulted in me breathing in briefly before I felt ‘stuck’ with no more breath available, and just holding my breath. Anything focused on deep breathing paradoxically left me more stressed and anxious.
I use the following method, because a) it’s what worked well for me as part of learning embodiment practices, and b) it works with my clients:
- close your eyes and sit back in your chair, with your feet supported on the ground
- gently start to feel yourself relaxing a little, without forcing anything
- allow yourself to start to focus on your breath but not have to ‘do anything’ with it
- notice your belly area – are you holding it in, or keeping it tight? If so, allow your belly to soften, release and relax. (This part of the process was a game changer for me)
- notice any thoughts that are coming into your mind and allow them to be there. It’s perfectly normal for thoughts, doubts, to do lists (!) and worries to pop up. Notice them, avoid judgement, and then come back to the breath
- focus on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, letting go with each ‘out’ breath. Aim to find your own rhythm without forcing the frequency or duration.
- gradually notice your breath travelling down deeper, into the belly, as you relax more.
Allow yourself a few minutes to sit in this space, and notice how you start to feel.
Incorporating the simple act of (deeply) breathing into a daily practice will help you to do it regularly. You can do it before you get out of bed in the morning (which is very appealing in colder weather!) or before you start work. Aim for a duration that is really easy for you to do – trying to do 30mins per day is likely to be too much for many people. Start with 2-5 minutes, to make it super-easy to succeed with, and therefore more likely to remain in your routine.
To find out how we can work together to get you breathing better and feeling more relaxed and focused, head here to get in touch.
Kylie xTags: anxiety breathing techniques breathwork relaxation stress stress management stress reduction transformational coaching