There is a lot you can do to create a foundation that helps you cope with and reduce stress. But sometimes you need first-aid on the fly. One
One handy stress-reducer that is always with you wherever you go is your breath. You can use breathing exercises on the fly to dial down the stress-o-meter and feel more at ease.
60-second breath break
One of my favorite ways to apply this is to develop a habit of taking “60-second breath breaks” throughout your day. Set some kind of reminder, perhaps on your phone or computer, multiple times a day. Aim for hourly to start with.
When the notification sounds, pause what you’re doing and focus on your breath for sixty seconds. If you don’t want to pay attention to the time, you can just focus for ten breaths.
This does a couple things. First, it builds in a ready break so your brain can’t go spiraling unendingly out of control. You create a regular reminder to slow down.
Second, when we’re stressed, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your nervous system that engages the fight, flight, or freeze response. Deep, slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which engages the rest and digest response.
Basically, deep slow breathing sends a message to your body that it’s OK to chill out.
Finally, most people’s breathing is habitually too shallow. Shallow breathing results in less oxygen making its way into your brain and body, as well as less effective elimination of CO2, which has an impact on both how your brain is functioning and how you feel overall.
Creating a regular reminder to breathe deeply can support healthier breathing habits.
Speaking of shallow breathing, if someone randomly tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to check, would you notice that you were breathing deeply into your abdomen, or would your breath be shallow?
If you’re like most of us, you probably noticed that it was pretty shallow, maybe no deeper than the upper chest.
A good way to shift out of that habitual shallow breath and tap into the advantages of putting your lungs to full use is to practice belly breathing.
Belly breathing is exactly what it sounds like – breathing deep into your belly, rather than shallowly into your chest. Here are some simple instructions.
Sit up straight, yet relaxed. Alternatively, you can lie on your back with your knees bent.
Put your hand on you belly, just below your sternum.
Breathe in deeply, gently expanding your belly. Imagine your breath going all the way into your belly as it expands, filling your lungs from the bottom. Feel your belly lifts your hand as you breathe in.
Breathe out. Gently pull your belly back in, using that to push out the breath. Again, feel how your hand falls as you breathe out.
Don’t worry about doing it perfectly. Just start practicing. Shallow breathing can be so habitual that belly breathing can feel unnatural, but the more you do it, the more natural it will become.
Here’s a good belly breathing tutorial.
You can add another dimension to your breathing by bringing mindfulness to it.
Here’s a short guided mindful breathing meditation.
You can also build intentionality into your practice by incorporating short phrases along with the in-breath and out-breath.
Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher Thich Naht Hanh suggests one simple way to approach this is to simply acknowledge exactly what is happening. For example:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Or, if you want to combine it with the belly breathing practice above, you might think:
Breathing in, I breathe in deeply.
Breathing out, I breathe out fully.
You can also play with different phrases for each in- and out-breath. For example:
Breathing in, I embrace peace.
Breathing out, I let go and smile.
Breathing in, I see beauty.
Breathing out, I feel love.
Breathing in, I embrace “yes.”
Breathing out, I let go of “no.”
Breathing in, peace fills me.
Breathing out, my anxiety melts.
Breathing in, I feel compassion.
Breathing out, I release my anger.
There is no right set of phrases. Those are the ones that just popped up off the top of my head. Experiment and explore. See what resonates most with you.
You can do this mindful breathing anytime, anywhere. Stuck in a slow line at the grocery store? Or maybe trapped in a meeting that just won’t end? Or perhaps you’re caught in the gridlock of rush hour traffic.