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HEALTH: BREATHE AWAY YOUR STRESS

June 09, 2019

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Inhale & Exhale
Inhale & Exhale

Universally, one of the most common phrases heard nowadays is “I’m so stressed out!”

As an educationist, I have seen stress particularly undermine learning for almost all age groups. Following are a few comments from students that showcase common ways that stress manifests itself.

“I get so nervous before a test, I forget everything. It’s so frustrating because it looks like I didn’t study, but I did!” “I suffer from anxiety. No one would believe it because I appear very calm on the outside but in my head, I feel like a top spinning out of control. What can I do to feel calm?”

These deep breathing techniques are an effecive way for the young and old to deal with everyday stresses

“Why is it so hard for me to pay attention and concentrate? I just can’t seem to do it.”

“I love to play sports. But every time, right before a match, I have so many doubts about messing up, letting my team down, and thinking I’m not good enough! I want to feel strong and confident.”

“Sleep is such a luxury for me. I have so much going on, I can’t find time to sleep. Even when I’m exhausted, I can’t fall asleep because my mind won’t stop working!”

If you’ve had such thoughts or feel this way, you must understand that you can help yourself to manage stress through one key relationship — that between stress and breathing. Stress creates an imbalance in one branch — the autonomic branch — of the nervous system. Your breath can influence this branch to ease it and calm it down, allowing you to feel balanced.

First, let’s see how stress works.

When you sense something is too overwhelming that you can’t cope with it, or you feel threatened, the autonomic branch automatically releases “stress chemicals.” You may have noticed your breath feels short and choppy, your heart races, your muscles get tense and your body seems ready to fight, run away or freeze. These chemicals can also interfere with access to your memory. Usually, these feelings should last only a few seconds. When you feel the threat has passed, your body naturally relaxes, and you breathe normally.

However, when you keep feeling stressed or anxious in different situations, such as worrying about upcoming exams, or your friends not including you in something, or you worry about looking different from your peers which is often an issue among young people, these stress chemicals keep being released, which means you stay tense, feel tired and can’t remember so well.

If you want to feel at ease and relaxed, the easiest and most effective way to help yourself is to use your breath. This readily-available tool influences the nervous system to release “calming, soothing chemicals” that can melt away tension and help you feel at ease. Here are a few breathing practices for you to try.

For each practice, try to breathe in and out preferably through your nose. You may need to breathe through your mouth if you have a cold or a breathing problem, but if you don’t, then try your best to breathe through your nose.

Do not force your breath to be longer than is comfortable for you.

SIMPLE BREATH PRACTICE

Sit up nice and tall in a chair with your feet placed firmly flat on the floor. Place your hands on your lap. Close your eyes or if you prefer to keep them open, then look at the floor in front of your feet. Bring your attention to your stomach.

Now, breathe in and feel your stomach rise.

Breathe out and feel your stomach fall.

Focus on the breath as it moves your stomach up and down.

Take 10-12 breaths like this.

Every time your mind wanders away to something other than your breath, such as planning or worrying, acknowledge where it’s gone and then bring your attention right back to feeling the breath move in your body. You may have to do this over and over again.

Practising to breathe like this will train your mind to pay attention to whatever is happening here and now.

The trick is to practice breathing like this every day, even if just for a minute or two, and especially when things are going well. When you do this, your mind remembers this breathing pattern easily and your body becomes familiar with it. Then when you feel anxious, you automatically remember to breathe like this to calm yourself down. Practice is key!

This next breathing exercise can train your mind to pay attention and to concentrate.

COUNT YOUR BREATH TO FOCUS

In this exercise, sit like you did in the simple breath practice. Count silently in your mind, not out loud. You are trying to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. If the count to breathe out is too long, then stop wherever you are comfortable. Do not hold your breath.

Keep breathing for the entire count. If the count is three, you will begin to breathe in at one and finish breathing in right after you’ve silently counted three. Then start silently counting your breath out.

Breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3.

Breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3.

Repeat 4 times.

Breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3.

Breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3, 4.

Repeat 4 times.

Breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3.

Breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Repeat 4 times.

Breathe in as you count 1, 2, 3.

Breathe out as you count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Repeat 8-12 times.

Gradually reduce the count of the out breath until it reaches 3.

Breathe naturally.

Every time your mind wanders away, gently guide your attention right back to counting your breath. The more your practice these breathing exercises, the easier it’ll become to pay attention and to concentrate on things such as your teacher giving you instructions in class, or completing a homework assignment in less time.

It’s pretty amazing how a short daily breath practice can improve your attention and concentration.

A really calming practice you can do when you find your mind is spinning like a top is the “humming bee breath.” The humming sound vibrations have a natural calming effect on the nervous system.

HUMMING BEE BREATH TO CALM YOUR NERVES

Do not force your breath to be longer than is comfortable for you.

1. Sit up nice and tall. Keep your face soft and your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths.

2. Bring your hands toward your ears and gently press the cartilage (between your cheek and ear) with your index fingers.

3. Breathe in through your nose.

4. Keeping the lips lightly sealed, breathe out through your nose as you make the sound of the letter M, essentially a humming sound. Keep making the sound through the entire exhalation until you need to breathe in again.

  1. Try to keep the breath smooth and even as you breathe out.

  2. Breathe in through the nose, then hum like a buzzing bee as you breathe out.

If you want to feel at ease and relaxed, the easiest and most effective way to help yourself is to use your breath. This readily-available tool influences the nervous system to release “calming, soothing chemicals” that can melt away tension and help you feel at ease.

Continue the same pattern six to eight times.

 When you’re done, sit quietly with your hands in your lap, noticing the peace and quiet you’ve created within yourself. And for all of you who love sports or do any kind of performance, your breath can help you to steady yourself. Try this grounding practice to feel stable and strong, ready to do your very best!

Every time your mind wanders away to something other than your breath, such as planning or worrying, acknowledge where it’s gone and then bring your attention right back to feeling the breath move in your body. You may have to do this over and over again.

GROUNDING PRACTICE

You may sit or stand as you do this practice. Regardless, first bring your awareness to your feet. Notice the surface beneath your feet, be it your socks, shoes or the floor. Sitting or standing with a nice tall back, imagine your feet are the roots of a tall tree and your legs are strong like the tree trunk.

Just like the roots take nutrients from the ground to grow tall, as you take a deep breath in, silently repeat “strength” or “courage” or whatever else you want to feel. Imagine your trunk getting filled with strength and courage, keeping you steady. As you breathe out, release any anxious thoughts you may be having such as, “What if I mess up?” or “What if I let others down?” Imagine these thoughts floating away.

Keep breathing like this for as many breaths as you need to feel grounded, strong and ready to do your best with confidence.


Now, after a long day at work or school, sleep may not sound so welcoming. As you lie down, you begin to think about how much you have to do, who said what to whom, how you could have done a task differently, and the next thing you know, it’s early morning!

Sleep is a pillar of life. When you don’t sleep, have you noticed how tired and irritable you can be? You can’t pay attention to anything, at work, school or at home, and you can’t remember what you studied or the tasks at hand. This is because when you are sleeping your brain prepares to learn, and also remembers what you have learned, as it safely stores your experiences as memories. Sleep repairs your body, restores your energy and refreshes you.  The next time you have difficulty sleeping, try the following practice.

SOOTHING PRACTICE

Lie down on your bed. Place a small soft pillow or your hands a little below your navel (belly button). Cover your eyes with a small towel. Make sure all the lights and electronic devices are off. Close your phone or put it on silent, and preferably keep it out of your room.

Breathe naturally for a few breaths. Bring your attention to your stomach rising and falling with your breath. But, this time when you breathe out, very gently push your navel toward the spine. You may notice the weight of the soft pillow or your hands going up and down.

If your mind begins to wander, guide your attention back to the sensations of the breath moving your stomach up and down.

Keep breathing like this for 10-12 breaths or more.

If you need more help, count your breath like you did in the earlier practice. Or as you breathe in, silently repeat “calm”, “rest” or “peace”. As you breathe out, silently repeat “release” or “let go.” Either way, very gently keep pushing your navel toward your spine as you breathe out.

As you keep engaging the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, the body will release calming, soothing chemicals that will help you to feel relaxed and at ease.

Consider your breath a friend. Whenever you need it, your friend is always there. By giving it your undivided attention for a minute or two every day, you can strengthen your friendship to make your breath your BFF!

Dr Shehnaz Tapal, Ed.D., LDT-C, is the founder of Mindful Matters that offers programmes for personal transformation including mindfulness, Viniyoga and SMYLE Bank (a mobile app that cultivates positivity).

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2019