This morning a headline in the Harvard Business Review caught my attention. Its title was Why Breathing Is So Effective at Reducing Stress.
The article recounts the story of a marine that used focused breathing to remain calm during a horrendous injury he had sustained. His ability to remain calm and focused is what allowed him to not only attend to his own injury but maintain enough presence of mind to get his men to call for help.
Most of us do not end up in combat level stress situations. It may seem like it, though, at times. We can find ourselves experiencing the same levels of stress as would be found in a battle situation if we do not know how to cope when life’s pressures mount.
It may seem like merely breathing is not a very practical solution to some extremely difficult situations. Yet the above example shows that it sure helps.
The Science Behind It: Breathing To Reduce Stress
A recent clinical trial conducted by researchers at Yale evaluated the effects of three different well-being interventions.
- Breathing Exercises: in this experiment, the researchers measured the impact of a particular program, SKY Breath Meditation. This is a comprehensive series of breathing and meditation exercises which one can learn over several days. It is designed to induce calm and resilience.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: a meditation technique in where the emphasis is learning to become aware of each moment in a non-judgmental way.
- Foundations of Emotional Intelligence: this program teaches techniques to improve emotional awareness and regulation.
The researchers assigned participants to one of the three programs or to a control group where there would be no intervention. They found that the participants who practiced the Breathing Exercises experienced the greatest mental health. In addition to this they found that the participants had improved social connectedness, positive emotions, reduced stress levels, relief from depression, and mindfulness benefits.
The University of Arizona conducted a similar study where Breath Meditation was compared to a workshop that taught more conventional, cognitive strategies for stress-management. The workshop was on how to change your thoughts about stress. Both Breathing Meditation and the cognitive stress workshop were rated similarly by participants and they both produced significant increases in social connectedness. However, the Breathing Meditation showed greater benefits in terms of immediate impact on stress, mood, and conscientiousness.
What was even more surprising is that, when measured three months later, these positive effects were shown to have increased as time went on.
Before and after the workshops, participants were placed in a high-pressure performance situation, like presenting at a business meeting. In anticipation of the stressful performance, the group that had completed the cognitive workshop still experienced elevated breathing and heart rates.
In contrast, the group that had done the Breathing Meditation held steady in terms of breathing and heart rate. It seems that this program had instilled in them an effective coping strategy against the anxiety typically associated with anticipating a stressful situation. So the were in a more positive emotional state, as well as able to think clearly and effectively. Those two elements allowed them to perform the task at hand without the heightened levels of stress that one would expect otherwise.
Research has shown that different types of breathing have an effect on emotions. Changing how you breathe can change how you feel. As you probably know when you feel joy, your breathing is regular. Deep and slow breaths are not the type of breathing you’ll find when you feel anxious or angry. In those cases your breathing will be irregular. Short, fast, and shallow breaths are what you will find are associated with more intense situations.
What’s wonderful though is that when you follow certain breathing patterns which are associated with specific emotions, you’ll can actually put yourself into that state and find yourself feeling the corresponding emotions.
Relaxing Breath: The Four-Seven-Eight Breathing Technique
An easy breathing technique to start with is called Relaxing Breath, or the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique. You don’t need any gear, and it can be done pretty much anywhere. Ideally you’ll want to sit with your back straight, at least when learning how to do this technique.
- Your tongue’s tip rests on the front of the roof of your mouth just above your upper teeth. The air will flow out of your mouth around your tongue when exhaling.
- Breathe out completely, hear the sound of your breath leaving your body, letting your lungs empty out.
- Your mouth now closes as you breathe in through your nose while counting to four in your mind.
- Rest for a count of seven before exhaling.
- Exhale, letting the exhalation make a whooshing sound as you allow it to last for a count of eight.
The exhalation is meant to be audible (think “whoosh”) while the inhalation is meant to be quiet. The tongue stays in the same position throughout the exercise. whether you count fast or slow is not as important as making sure that you are counting at a constant pace. It’s the ratio that’s important. The exhalation is to take twice as long as the inhalation while the rest period while you are holding your breath is just under the duration of time you will spend exhaling the next breath.
So in summary it’s: Inhale through the nose for 4. Hold for 7. Exhale through the mouth for 8.
It shouldn’t take long to learn. And once you have got it down, you can do this any time you feel the need for it.
Dr A. Weil, M. D. , who recommends this technique, says: “This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently.”
While the exercise can be done as often as you like Dr Weil recommends no more than four breaths per session for the first month of practice.