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When we are stressed, our body goes into “fight, freeze, or flight”. Blood and oxygen are taken away from our organs and into our larger muscles, impacting our digestion, hormones, immune system and our energy levels. If consistently activated, no matter how well you look after your body with nutrition, it can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. To effectively reduce stress, we need to take our nervous system into the rest, digest, and repair zone. Breathing diaphragmatically, practising ancient breathing techniques, and undertaking breath-based exercise will not only help to combat stress, improve mental health, and boost your energy, it is a key tool that can be used every day to achieve good health.
Take a deep breath
Breathe slowly through your nose, deeply into the diaphragm, with as much fresh air getting into the lungs. Watch your abdomen rise, pause, and take a deep breath out.
Diaphragmatic breathing enables more oxygen to flow through the body, allowing access to more nutrients, more blood flow to the brain, and a reduction in blood pressure. It helps your muscles to relax and allows us to simply to slow down. Most people take short shallow breaths, where their chest rises but their abdomen doesn’t. Practising diaphragmatic breathing will eventually lead you to naturally breathe into your abdomen instead of your chest, just like a baby does.
Sit down on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. Focus on one aspect: your breath. Focus on the sensation of air flowing through your nostrils, your belly rising and falling. Once your concentration has narrowed, become aware of the sounds around you, the sensation sitting on the chair brings, how your body feels. If your mind starts to wander, notice where your focus has gone to, let the thought pass without judgement, and then move back to your focus, your breath.
Many people can become overwhelmed by the idea of meditation. However, simplified, meditation is merely slowing down and focussing your mind on the present moment. It can be hard to find a moment to ourselves where our mind isn’t cluttered. However, no matter how big your to-do list is, those tasks will be better achieved with a relaxed nervous system and a clear mind. Mindfulness meditation not only helps to reduce stress, but it can also be used to combat worry and low mood as it helps to remove your thoughts from the past or future, allowing you to be present in the moment.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Lie on your back, legs uncrossed and arms at your side. Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Breathing through your nose, feel your abdomen rise and fall, until you start to feel relaxed. When you’re ready, shift your attention to your left foot. Slowly tense the muscles and squeeze as tightly as possible for 1-2 minutes. Release the tension and notice the sensation. Move your focus to your right foot and repeat. Then onto your left then right ankle, calf, knee, up towards your thighs, torso, arms, shoulders and to the tip of your head. After completion, scan your body, notice any sensations, and how you feel. Stand and stretch to finish.
Progressive muscle relaxation helps you to identify what it feels like when you hold tension in different areas of your body, so you can identify when you need to relax. It allows your body to feel tense in a controlled environment and with practise can help you to naturally relax after stressful events, helping you build resilience to stressors.
The 4-7-8 technique
Sit up straight in a comfortable position. Place the tip of your tongue on the back of your front teeth. Breathing in through the nose, and into the abdomen, count to four. Hold your breath for the count of seven. Breathe out of your mouth for the count of eight. This is one breath, repeat the cycle another four times.
Based on the ancient Indian practice of pranayama, the 4-7-8 technique manipulates the breath to promote slower and deeper breathing, the longer exhale grounding you in the present moment. Activating the rest, digest and relax nervous system, this technique has been linked to reduced stress and improved cognition, including improved focus and productivity. It is used by many to elicit a sense of calm and may help you get to sleep.
Breathing is part of our everyday life; however, many people are not breathing properly. Not only does a correct breath technique help us to reduce stress and activate the rest, digest, and repair nervous system; an incorrect breathing technique can put our bodies under even more stress. Make simple breathing exercises part of your regular routine. Starting and ending your day with a breathing exercise, can support your nervous system and set you up for a more productive day – and it only takes a few minutes. Practising restorative, breath-focussed movement including yoga, Pilates, or tai-chi can help support your lymphatic system and detoxification and are wonderful forms of exercise especially if you are suffering from stress or low levels of energy.
It is important to find a technique that can fit into your lifestyle. If your schedule is already busy, simply remember to slow down your everyday breath and breathe deep into your abdomen. Correctly breathe every day, and you will find increased energy, motivation, and a sense of calm, that will allow you to tackle each day head on.
What is the 4-7-8 breathing technique, and how does it work?
The 4-7-8 breathing technique involves inhaling through the nose for a count of four, holding the breath for a count of seven, and exhaling through the mouth for a count of eight, promoting slower and deeper breathing to support relaxation and reduce stress relief.
What is mindfulness meditation, and how can it help reduce stress?
Mindfulness meditation is a practice of focusing on the present moment, such as the breath, to cultivate awareness and acceptance, which can help reduce stress by shifting attention away from worries and promoting a sense of calm.