No matter how stable or grounded you are, there will no doubt be times in your life when you feel stressed, anxious, or upset. At times like this, your breathing becomes shallow (or you may even unconsciously hold your breath), and there is an increased release of stress hormones in the body. Your chest may tighten and tense and your belly may barely move with each breath. This shallow, tight breathing creates still more stress in the body, a cycle that may be difficult to interrupt.
In order to stop the cause/effect cycle of shallow breathing and stress hormones, it can be helpful to become mindful of your breathing. When you take charge of the normally autonomic breathing rhythms, you are able to calm yourself so that you can act appropriately in a situation, rather than reacting. Dr. Andrew Weil says, “Breath is the master key to health and wellness, a function we can learn to regulate and develop in order to improve our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.”
The first step is awareness. Practice noticing when your breathing is not natural and deep. Notice how your body feels. You may feel tightness in your belly, tension in your chest, or even slightly dizzy. These are all symptoms of inadequate breathing.
When you notice these physical symptoms, put one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Mindfully take a deep breath through your nose, bringing the air deep into your lungs; feel your belly rise with the breath, and release through your mouth. Repeat this until it feels easy and natural to breathe this way. If you are feeling especially tense, gently hold your inhale to the count of three, then exhale slowly through your mouth to the count of five.
You may also wish to try alternate nostril breathing, in which each nostril in turn is closed. You can read a detailed description of the practice here.
This conscious, deliberate form of breathing forces the body to calm, and triggers the release of endorphins, those “feel good” hormones. It increases mental focus, fully oxygenates the body, and supports the immune system.
With practice, you can learn to use calming breathing to counteract any feelings of tension or stress. You can learn how your body feels when your breathing is natural, easy, and relaxed, and create that feeling on demand.