If the pandemic is still playing an roulette with your stress levels, know that you’re most definitely not alone. Figuring out how to combat stress can be, well, stressful. Thankfully there are a number of relaxation techniques that are easily accessible to us and they only involve using your breath.
A growing number of studies show that breathing techniques are effective against anxiety and insomnia, symptoms that are undoubtedly familiar during these uncertain times. Which is why it’s key that we focus on how to optimize the functioning of our bodies and mind through our breath.
“To function optimally as human beings, our physical, mental, emotional, and social systems are in a state of coherence – basically working together in a balanced manner,” Dr. Kris Boksman, Ph.D., C.Psych., tells SheKnows. “When our nervous system is in a state of coherence, we are more likely to be able to hang out in a general sense of well-being, as well as enjoy improvements in cognitive, social, and physical performance. We all need this in COVID times.”
Not sure where to start when it comes to breathing exercises? No sweat. We gathered examples from a number of experts who walk us through their favorite breathing techniques. All you need is a quiet room and a pair of lungs to begin.
“This is a relatively easy, yet powerful breathing activity that helps to bring our nervous system into balance,” says Boksman. “To assist in balancing out our systems during times of stress, the heart-centred breath shifts our out of balance stressed bodies more toward a state of well-being and relative relaxation.” Here is how it is done
Step 1: Notice your breathing and slow the speed at which you are breathing in and out – breathe in a cycle of breathing in slowly for three to four seconds, and breathing out slowly for three to four seconds.
Step 2: Feel where your heart is inside your body, and imagine that your breath is moving through your heart as you breathe in and out. “When we focus on our hearts and our breathing, this sends signals to our nervous system that things are okay, and that we are safe,” says Boksman. “If we use our attention to notice slow breath and slow, comfortable heart sensations, the parts of our brains that are designed to scan for signs of alarm, instead, notices signs of safety, and helps us settle down in that moment.”
Step 3: While you continue to breathe in this manner, think about something that gives you a warm emotional feeling inside – something that brings about feelings of gratitude, love, appreciation, or being really touched by something in a beautiful way.
“This final step will permit your nervous system to receive signals of safety and comfort, and will cut off the nervous system’s desire to keep flooding your body with stress hormones. You will begin to notice a shift in your stress level and your physical experience of stress as you continue to breathe and connect with these positive thoughts and feelings.”
A Basic Meditation
“Meditation is extremely beneficial for our mind, our body and our spirit. It helps us to relax, clears our mind and releases negative energy and unwanted thoughts,” Heather Askinosie, co-founder of Energy Muse, tells SheKnows. “Meditating can help to raise your consciousness and awareness, deepening your intuition and bringing insight.” Here is a simple breathing exercise for basic meditation:
Step one: First, find a quiet space where you feel comfortable and relaxed.
Step two: Sit quietly, close your eyes and quiet your mind, focusing your attention on your breathing
Step three: Breathe in the highest white light, and let the energy fill your mind and permeate your senses.
Step four: RELAX your mind and your body.
Step five: Continue taking deep breaths, holding in your breath for a few seconds.
Step six: When you are finished, and feel completely relaxed and at peace, complete the grounding process by seeing all aspects of your awareness spiraling back into your body. Feel yourself connect with the Earth and your body.
Step seven: Open your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
Even Balanced Breathing or ‘samma vrtti’
To help bring the nervous system into equilibrium, through the conscious regulation of the breath, yoga and meditation teacher Lauren Eckstrom, co-founder of Inner Dimension TV, suggests trying a simple breathing technique called Even Balance Breathing or Samma Vrtti.
“This type of breathing shuts off the stress response, activates the relaxation response and lowers blood pressure.”
Step 1: Inhale to the count of four.
Step 2: Exhale to the count of four.
“If breathing exercises like this are new to you, start with just a minute or two,” says Eckstrom. “It’s important to never overdo it and if you feel lightheaded, take a break. Try doing this exercise when making transitions. For example, do a minute of this breathing exercise in your car before walking back into your home at the end of the day or when transitioning from a work meeting to family time.”
‘Alternate Nostril Breathing’, or ‘nadi shodhana’
“When I teach my students vocal exercises I often start with this breathing exercise because, if we are trying to release tension in our voices but our nervous system is activated or agitated, we’re not going to be as successful as if our nervous system is calm,” Elissa Weinzimmer, a voice and movement coach, tells SheKnows. “I always come back to alternate nostril breathing as my primary practice for calming so that I can manage my stress.”
To prep: Tuck the 2nd (pointer) and 3rd (middle) fingers on your right hand, so that your 1st (thumb), 4th (ring), and 5th (pinky) fingers are sticking out.
Step 1: Plug your thumb into your right nostril and breathe out through your left nostril to the bottom of your breath.
Step 2: Slowly breathe in through your left nostril.
Step 3: Switch sides, plugging your left nostril with your ring finger, and breathe out through your right nostril to the bottom of your breath.
Step 4: Slowly breathe in through your right nostril.
“That is one full cycle of the breath. I recommend doing that for at least 7 cycles in order to relax your nervous system.”
A version of this story was published May 2020.