As human beings, we tend to make things harder than they have to be. Our big brains often get us in hot water when we take shortcuts and ignore what is most important to us. Take for example the recent rise in disabling mental illness in the U.S. At last count, over 40 million American adults, or about 18 percent of the population, had an anxiety disorder.
With a of lifetime prevalence of nearly one-third, some experts believe U.S. society itself is to blame for the alarming increase in these illnesses. One thing is for certain, however, the pills aren’t working! According to recent prescription data, more than 20 percent of U.S. adults (1 in 5) are on behavioral meds. This brings us back to our opening assertion, i.e., we make things harder than they have to be!
Overworked, underpaid, stressed-out, and feeling the strain? There are plenty of ways to find calm in a frantic world that do not involve prescription pills. One of the most effective options is to do what you are doing right now. No, we don’t mean reading. We are talking, of course, about breathing. The oldest relaxation technique known to man consists of simply taking a breath and expelling the air in a controlled manner.
When we are nervous, upset, or anxious about anything, someone always instructs us to take a deep breath. Why is this? Because even though we take them every 3 to 5 seconds, shallow gasps from the upper chest do not deliver much air. When we breathe deeply from the abdomen, however, we take in much more oxygen, which helps improve mind and body functioning.
Don’t believe us? Well, take a few deep breaths yourself. Now, what did you notice? Do you feel more awake, more alert, a little more energetic?
That’s the oxygen at work. Now, imagine you spent ten to twenty minutes breathing in a slow, controlled way each day. Not only would your mind be clearer and better able to focus, but your body would also relax as stress hormones dissipated. There’s even evidence that controlled breathing can lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Not to mention the fact that unchecked stress can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to colds and other common illnesses. But since we can’t possibly avoid all the myriad sources of stress in our lives, we must find a way to deal with them in a healthy, productive way. With that in mind, here are a few simple breathing techniques that can help you relax in a matter of minutes.
1. Abdominal Breathing
How to do it: Sit comfortably with your back straight. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose. As your diaphragm descends, the hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should move very little. Exhale slowly through your mouth, pushing out as much air as possible as you squeeze your abdominal muscles.
Each inhalation and exhalation should be slow and steady, lasting an average of 10 seconds from start to finish. (You may want to time yourself at the outset to ensure that you take between 6 and 10 deep breaths per minute.) The goal should be to complete at least ten full minutes of deep abdominal breathing each day. If you have a hard time breathing in a seated position at the start, you can lie on the floor and practice the technique before sitting up.
When to do it: Abdominal breathing is arguably the most important deep breathing technique because it teaches us breathe in a different way. Those who have never attempted it are often surprised by just how hard it is to breath in and out from the abdomen with deep, slow breaths, compared to taking quick, shallow ones from the upper chest. Because it delivers a lot of oxygen in a short period of time, abdominal breathing gives us energy and helps improve concentration.
As a result, it is an extremely popular relaxation technique for students to employ before an exam. Not only does it help them relax after an all-night cram session, it also helps revive their tired minds.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
How to do it: One of the reasons Americans love massages is that we tend to hold a lot of our tension in our muscles. Back problems, muscle spasms, general aches and pains, and even serious injuries are all common symptoms of this unhealthy habit. We can address the issue with a technique that combines deep breathing with muscle tension and relaxation. Here’s how to do it.
Dressed in loose, comfortable clothing, take a seat in a quiet place. Remove your shoes and begin to breath in and out with slow, deep breaths. Once relaxed, close your eyes and focus on tensing then relaxing a specific muscle for a few seconds at a time. Most beginners start with one of their hands or feet, then move on to other sore or overworked areas.
As you progress, you will want to tense specific muscles a bit harder for at least ten seconds at a time. Although not the focus of the technique, your breathing should remain slow and deep throughout. For many newcomers, it is helpful to count breaths while tensing and relaxing each muscle. Experts recommend inhaling three to five times through the nose while the muscles are tensed, then exhaling three to five times through the mouth upon release.
When to do it: While it is true that more experienced practitioners can complete an effective progressive relaxation session just about anywhere – at a desk, at home, even on the road -most tyros need a quiet place where they can relax and focus on each muscle. It is also important to note that tensing muscles too hard and/or too long can result in dizziness, which in not the goal of the technique.
So if you experience this unpleasant side effect, you are pushing yourself too hard. Slow down and remember that relaxation, not lightheadedness is the purpose of progressive relaxation.
3. Equal Breathing or Sama Vritti
How to do it: Like most yoga techniques, equal breathing is designed to calm the body and focus the mind. Practiced by both beginners and yogis alike, it begins in a comfortable, cross-legged seated position such as sukhasana. You must then close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Do not change anything at first, but simply observe your natural breathing rhythm. Because most of us take quick, shallow breaths that are not conducive to relaxation during our waking hours, odds are you must slow your breathing down a bit.
A good rule of thumb is to count to four as you inhale and four as you exhale. You may change this interval depending on your personal needs, just be sure to breath in and out for equal lengths of time.
When to do it: You don’t have to be in a yoga studio to practice pranayama, which is the art and science of controlled breathing in yoga. In fact, there are over 50 pranayama breathing techniques and forms, including sama vritti. Praised by medical professionals for its stress-relieving benefits, equal breathing is especially effective before bedtime.
4. Guided Visualization
How to do it: A classic song instructs us to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative… ” What’s the best way to do just that? We start by closing our eyes, breathing deeply in and out, and focusing on positive images to replace the negatives one we are bombarded with on a daily basis. For beginners, it is often helpful to listen to a soothing recording, such as nature sounds, to help the anodyne images come more freely.
When to do it: Anywhere you can close your eyes and block out the world for awhile.
All of the breathing techniques we have discussed today can be used to invoke the relaxation response. The ultimate goal of controlled breathing, this natural state of profound rest helps us deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way. Compared to pills, it delivers consistent results without the risk of dependence and other unwanted side effects. And all you have to do is breathe!