When you think about the word “breathe” what comes to mind? We tend to think of the act of breathing as something that is effortless or automatic. But when we become stressed, our bodies take on a life of their own. Raising our shoulders leaves us tense and unable to relax, keeping our faces tensed can lead to headaches and constant anxiety – which many of us are feeling these days – can lead to a condition called chronic hyperventilation.
Hyperventilating most likely conjures up an image of someone frantically breathing into a brown paper bag, but the reality is, hyperventilation isn’t always that obvious. The act of over breathing can quickly become a chronic condition when stress if regularly present and can lead to things like lightheadedness, foggy thinking, a pounding heartbeat, muscle spasms, dry mouth, problems sleeping and other common ailments. It can be an incredible relief to recognize that something as simple as breathing could be the cause of those scary symptoms and that there is a way to gain control of the breath.
Sometimes just becoming aware of the breath is enough. Take some time to mindfully focus on your breath throughout the day. See how it feels. Is it stopping at the chest without including the belly?
Belly breathe – stress can lead to shallow breathing that never fully reaches the belly. The stomach should rise and fall with each breath, rather than the breath stopping at the chest.
Practice 4 square (or box breath) breathing – inhale to a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four and reset for a count four. Then begin a gain. This can be a useful technique when you become aware that your breathing is anxious or stressed.
Meditate regularly. Meditation requires us to slow everything down, from our minds and our physical movements, to our breathing. Try this at the beginning of each morning to create purpose for the upcoming day or before bed to reflect on the day’s events.
Become familiar with Pranayama, or yoga breathing. These techniques train your body to breathe correctly and deeply for a cleansing practice. Engaging in this regularly can help you to more easily recognize when a slower, more mindful breath may be needed throughout the day.
Connect the mind and body with exercises like tai chi, yoga or qigong, which force the participant to learn how to get the benefits of mindful breathing while engaging in mindful movements.
Alternate nostril breathing – This technique can quickly reduce stress and fatigue in high-stress situations and can be completed discreetly for a quick calm-down. Place the left hand on the left knee. Lift the right hand toward the nose and exhale completely, using the right thumb to close the right nostril. Inhale through the left nostril and then close the left nostril with the fingers, opening the right nostril and exhaling through this side. Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril. Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side to complete the first cycle, continuing for up to five minutes.
Take some time off. This may seem like a no-brainer, but a regular, purposeful break is important for everyone, not just those who have become chronic hyperventilators. Allowing the mind and body to rest can reduce stress and lead to healthier sleeping habits.
Loosen up the body. Throughout the day, pay attention to the way you are holding your body. Are your shoulders raised and tight? Are your legs crossed? Are your eyes squinted? Move through each area of your body, releasing muscles as you go and spending time in the relaxation before moving on to the next part of the body.
As always, be sure to check in with your doctor if breathing is a concern for you. Although in most cases, stress could be the culprit, underlying conditions could be causing your symptoms. If you receive the all clear, try a few of the above techniques for relief.