Reducing stress through breath and meditation
With busy work routines, stress levels may start to rise. But this is also the perfect time to catch yourself and start to create change. We can try to avoid stress as much as we want but the fact is, stress is unavoidable, it’s a natural part of life that we just can’t escape. So how about instead of trying to avoid stress we start to shift our perspective on stress and implement some effective strategies for coping in stressful times.
Stress can actually be a really positive thing, it can help to motivate you, it can propel you to rise to the occasion and perform to your best - think of athletes or when you have to give a public speech. Stress can also move you into making change in your life.
We often look back at those stressful times in our life with hindsight and feel grateful because it was a catalyst to make major change. Negative stress however is a stress that a person feels they can’t handle and the situation becomes overwhelming. People deal with stress in different ways and the capacity to deal with stress changes throughout life - this is good to remember if we get frustrated by older relatives! However, those who have developed effective strategies to deal with day-to-day stressors are less likely to develop negative physical and psychological symptoms.
Modern day stress is more likely to be psychological in origin and prolonged in nature. Thanks to the work of the sympathetic nervous system, a surge of hormones are released into the body - adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine just to name a few. Over-exposure to these chemicals have a whole range of negative impacts on the body’s systems – such as the brain, cardiovascular, immune and digestive systems - as blood is drawn away from these vital organs in the ‘flight or fight’ response.
The chemical residue from stress leaves a trail in the body. You know how animals can smell and track fear? Well, this residue sits like battery acid in the muscles. Do you ever wake up with that stiff, burning sensation in your muscles? Listen to that sensation, it’s the early warning signs that your whole system is under stress, if ignored it can lead to a whole host of medical problems, like disease, adrenal fatigue and burnout.
Changing your response to stress
So that’s the bad news, but I invite you to consider this…what happens if we stop viewing stress as public enemy number one? By changing how we think about stress; can we start to change how our bodies respond?
I believe so, because under stress adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are produced, but so is oxytocin popularly known as the ‘hugging hormone’, that enhances empathy, makes you more compassionate and caring, protects your cardiovascular system by helping heart cells to reproduce and well makes you feel good.
According to a 2013 study in the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal, scientists found that reaching out to other people during a stressful event was an effective way to improve your mood, and researchers suggest that the hormone oxytocin may help you accomplish just that.
Just as stress releases chemicals in the body, joy releases its own powerful brand of chemicals that can help dissolve pain and fill you with feelings of happiness, like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin.
These chemicals are also the science behind yoga, for those who enjoy a connection with a scientific explanation. These joy chemicals are also highly addictive and you will come to enjoy and crave them.
The regular practice of yoga, including pranayama (breath work) and meditation, are powerful ways to arm yourself with a toolbox of techniques to help you navigate with more ease and grace through stressful times in your life, also helping you to become more aware of the early signs of stress and fatigue.
Here’s a guided 10 minute meditation to help calm and settle your mind and nervous system.
Though practice of pranayama is safest and most effective when guided by an experienced teacher who knows your needs and capabilities, there are several simple techniques you can try at home as long as you’re in good health and you don’t push beyond your capacity.
The three breathing practices that follow—relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing; gentle ‘extended exhale’ breathing and nadi shodana (alternate nostril) breath—are a good introduction to pranayama. Each supports the parasympathetic nervous system, quiets the mind, and helps to bring about a state of more focused attention. As you continue to practice these techniques over time, you may start to notice when you are unintentionally holding your breath or breathing shallowly. You also may begin to associate patterns of the breath with your moods or states of mind. This self awareness is the first step toward using the practices of pranayama to help shift your patterns and, through regular practice, create positive change in your life.
Try each practice daily for a week and observe how it affects your body, breath, and mind in order to figure out which is best for you. You can do them at just about any time of day, though preferably not immediately following a large meal.
Basic breath awareness
This gentle introduction to diaphragmatic breathing teaches you how to breathe more fully and consciously.
Quiets and calms the entire nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety and improving self-awareness.
At least once a day, at any time.
Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Place a palm on your abdomen and breathe comfortably for a few moments, noticing the quality of your breath. Does the breath feel tense? Strained? Uneven? Shallow? Simply observe the breath without any judgment. Then gradually begin to make your breathing as relaxed and smooth as possible, introducing a slight pause after each in breath and out breath.
Once the breath feels relaxed and comfortable, notice the movement of the body. As you inhale, the abdomen naturally expands; as you exhale, feel the slight contraction of the abdomen. In a gentle way, try to actively expand the abdomen on the inhale and contract the abdomen on the exhale to support the natural movement of the diaphragm and experience the pleasure of giving yourself a full, relaxed breath. Continue the practice for 6 to 12 breaths.
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shoddana)
Alternating the breath between the nostrils balancing right and left hemispheres of the brain, and yin and yang energy in the body.
Nadi shoddana is thought to be a cure all that can open all of our energy channels and bring calm and balance to the mind.
Once or twice a day
Sit in a relaxed, comfortable position, breathing naturally and easily. When you feel ready, press your right thumb against your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your inhalation, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, then exhale through the right nostril. Continue with this pattern, inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril. Practice for at least three minutes. When you finish, take some time to allow your breath to return to normal, noticing the changes in your breath and mind.
The long exhale
This 1:2 breathing practice, which involves gradually increasing your exhalation until it is twice the length of your inhalation, relaxes the nervous system.
Can reduce insomnia, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.
Before bedtime to help support sleep, in the middle of the night when you’re struggling with insomnia, or at any time of the day to calm stress or anxiety. (In general, it’s best to avoid practicing 1:2 breathing first thing in the morning unless you’re experiencing anxiety. The relaxing effects of the practice tend to make it more difficult to get up and go on with your day.)
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Place a palm on the abdomen and take a few relaxed breaths, feeling the abdomen expand on the inhalation and gently contract on the exhalation. With your palm on your abdomen, mentally count the length of each inhalation and exhalation for several more breaths. If the inhalation is longer than the exhalation, you can begin to make them the same length over the next few breaths.
Once your inhalation and exhalation are equal, gradually increase the length of your exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds by gently contracting the abdomen. As long as the breath feels smooth and relaxed, continue to gradually increase the exhalation by 1 to 2 seconds once every few breaths. Make sure you experience no strain as the exhalation increases and keep going until your exhalation is up to twice the length of the inhalation, but not beyond. For example, if your inhalation is comfortably 4 seconds, do not increase the length of your exhalation to more than 8 seconds.
Keep in mind that even an exhalation that is only slightly longer than the inhalation can induce a calming effect, so take care that you don’t push yourself beyond your capacity. (If you do, you’ll likely activate the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, and feel agitated rather than calm.)
If your breath feels uncomfortable or short, or if you’re gasping on the next inhalation, back off to a ratio that is more comfortable for 8 to 12 breaths. Then finish your practice with 6 to 8 natural, relaxed breaths.
Nikki Ralston has been working with the human body for over 15 years. She devised the Ralston Method, which blends together elements of hatha, vinyasa, precision alignment and mindfulness teachings. She is also the owner of Urban Ashram in Auckland.