Do you struggle with stress? Most of us do. There is a simple and effective exercise, discussed below, that can have a big, positive effect on your ability to handle stress.
One of the primary causes of the negative stress we experience is our “fight or flight response” which occurs naturally when we perceive threat. When engaged, flight or flight causes our sympathetic nervous system to increase our metabolism, blood pressure, heart and respiration rates as well as dilate our pupils and constrict our blood vessels. This all occurs to assist us in fighting or fleeing the dangerous situation. This is an evolutionary feature that is found in many other animals and has helped our survival as a species.
An issue that we have in modern times is that we are rarely in actual physical danger and now this fight or flight response is triggered by non-dangerous situations such as work deadlines, our daily commute, discussion of politics and whether our posts get likes on social media. According to Harvard Medical School: “all those surging stress hormones can take a toll on the body. Over time, such low-grade chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.”
An effective way to combat the fight or flight response is to trigger the opposite response in our bodies which is the “relaxation response.” This physiological mechanism was first discovered and publicized by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard. From Psychology Today: “Dr. Benson describes the Relaxation Response as a physical state of deep relaxation which engages the other part of our nervous system—the parasympathetic nervous system. Research has shown that regular use of the Relaxation Response can help any health problem that is caused or exacerbated by chronic stress such as fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal ailments, insomnia, hypertension, anxiety disorders, and others.” Dr. Benson found that use of the relaxation response can lower blood pressure on par with medication.
How can we trigger our relaxation response? There are a number of techniques, but one of the most simple, yet effective, techniques is the regular use of breathing exercises. Regular breathing practice can have a big effect over time on the negative stress you experience. My favorite breathing exercise is called The Relaxing Breath. It is something that I practice multiple times a day and also use when I’m feeling stressed. It also can help you fall asleep. Below is a video and then written instruction from Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine explaining how to practice the relaxing breath. The Video:
The 4-7-8 (or Relaxing Breath) Exercise (from DrWeil.com):
“The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is utterly simple, takes almost no time, requires no equipment and can be done anywhere. Although you can do the exercise in any position, sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Note that with this breathing technique, you always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth. The tip of your tongue stays in position the whole time. Exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation. The absolute time you spend on each phase is not important; the ratio of 4:7:8 is important. If you have trouble holding your breath, speed the exercise up but keep to the ratio of 4:7:8 for the three phases. With practice you can slow it all down and get used to inhaling and exhaling more and more deeply.
This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently. Do not do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.
Once you develop this technique by practicing it every day, it will be a very useful tool that you will always have with you. Use it whenever anything upsetting happens – before you react. Use it whenever you are aware of internal tension or stress. Use it to help you fall asleep. This exercise cannot be recommended too highly. Everyone can benefit from it.”