My “mother-in-love” is newly into all things mindfulness, but her efforts don’t always go as blissfully as planned. This week, she texted me:
My breathing exercises need some work. I try to do gentle peaceful breathing ? and it comes out more like ?
I giggled, and I know she’s not alone because I’ve been there, too. Who hasn’t had the experience of being in a yoga or meditation class feeling like they weren’t doing that relaxing part “right”? What reasons do we have for bothering with this trendy “deep breathing” stuff anyway? So I looked into the research, and it turns out we have a lot of statistically-backed reasons.
Three Breaths for Lowering Your Cortisol Level
Stress keeps us alive. Every single one of us responds to stressful situations with a “fight or flight” response.
Imagine taking a leisurely walk in the park when you suddenly see a snake on the path two feet in front of you. In one quick second, your body mobilizes. Your eyes register the sight of the long, winding, menacing creature to the amygdala in your brain. The amygdala processes the snake and screams to the hypothalamus: “THREAT!!!!” The hypothalamus quickly and competently shoots the message of alarm to your nervous system, which prepares you either for a battle or to run like hell. Epinephrine (adrenaline) floods your bloodstream, triggering your pounding, quick heart rate. Extra blood fills your veins. Your blood pressure sharply increases, rapidly funneling blood toward your vital organs and muscles. Your breath quickens and shallows, pressing extra oxygen into the brain for added alertness. You are now fully prepared to fight this snake or run the opposite direction.
Just reading this– do you feel these physiological triggers in your body?
This stress response is well designed to save you from danger, and it has been doing so for you and your ancestors for a long, long time. But here’s the tricky truth of modern day existence: your body has the same response to a stressful traffic jam as it does to this snake. In our stress- filled environments, it’s no wonder the modern day human has such issues with stress-related ailments.
We can’t control most of these physiological changes. If our body senses a threat, whether a tiger or an annoying customer, the chain of stress-related reactions will go into motion. But we do have control over one reaction in this chain. Do we have control over our amygdala, the release of epinephrine, or our increased blood pressure? No. But we have control over our breath.
We can communicate safety to our body and thus diminish the effects of the stress response with the power of our breath.
Ready to learn how?
After looking over multiple research studies, I’ve identified three types of breath that are statistically proven to soften the effects of stress on your body. All three of them are very easy to do. As you practice them, remember that finding ease and relaxation in your body is the goal. If you feel your stress response kick in, back off a bit or try a different breath. Try these three different breaths to find the one that feels the most gratifying to you:
The Belly Breath
According to this research: “Diaphragmatic breathing [belly breathing] involves contraction of the diaphragm, expansion of the belly, and deepening of inhalation and exhalation.” Participants attended 20 Belly Breath sessions over 8 weeks which resulted in significantly lower cortisol (stress) levels and significantly higher sustained attention rates than the control group.
How to: Find your spine straight and long, whether sitting, standing, or lying down. Begin breathing into the chest, then continue filling your lungs with air as if you were filling your belly up with air like a balloon. Relax the abdominal muscles and allow your belly to push out. This is how I teach it to kids, but it works great with adults, too: Lying down, put something light like a notebook or small pillow on your belly + watch it go up and down. Do this for as few as 5 breaths, or up to 5 minutes.
The 2:1 Breath
According to this research: “In 2:1 breathing, exhalation time is twice of inhalation.” Patients with hypertension practiced this 2:1 breath 10-14 minutes per day for 3 months, which resulted in a statistically significant reduction of blood pressure, heart rate, and other stress response indicators.
How to: Find a position with your spine straight and long, whether sitting, standing, or lying down. Breathe out to a mental count of 6, the breathe in to a mental count of 3. You can use any ratio of 2:1 that feels relaxing to you. Do this as little as 5 rounds of breath, or if you want to reap the effects of the research study, up to 7 minutes twice per day.
The Sighing Breath
It turns out the sigh you emit that often comes after frustration or sadness is crucial to human existence. It helps to regulate breathing by triggering a huge-volume breath followed by a pause and was found to significantly decrease the stress response in anxiety-prone individuals.
How to: Find a position with your spine straight and long, whether sitting, standing, or lying down. Take a slow and deep breath in, then let it all go with a big sigh. You can experiment with different exhalation sounds, quiet and loud, to find the breath that gives you the most relief. Do this sighing breath three to seven times.
PS- In response to my mother-in-love’s text, I wondered if her body was telling her something by letting out big breaths instead of “calm” ones. I suggested she try the Sighing Breath to see if it felt better. She loves it and feels much more comfortable! Pay attention to how your body responds to each breath, and be open to the idea that your breath may be telling you what your body needs!
Which type of breath do you think helps you diminish your stress response?
How could you integrate this type of breathing into your every day life? Could you do three breaths when you get in the car, or before bed, or…?
Now that you know more about your body’s stress response, which physiological trigger could you become aware of? What could you do in response to this trigger to communicate safety to your body?
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