Relaxation: Simple (As Breathing) But Not Easy

September 18, 2015 | By

by Dr. Bert Pitts

Stressful times call for good coping strategies. By far the best coping strategy for stress and anxiety is, purely and simply, to SIT STILL AND BREATHE. Breathing, depending on how you do it, either helps or hinders your ability to relax and remain calm. When you are stressed or anxious, your body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated, and unconsciously, your body shifts into an adrenal, “fight or flight” mode. Your heart rate rises. Right on cue, your breathing becomes more rapid and shallow. Unless you act intentionally to change your breathing, a swift physiological domino effect is set into motion:
You are not getting enough oxygen. Why? When you breathe rapidly, your breathing (by necessity) must become more shallow. You are using only the center section of your lungs, the air does not have enough time to reach the smaller “branches” of your bronchial tubes, each culminating in air sacs (alveoli), where oxygen is transferred from the air to your bloodstream.
Not only does rapid (shallow) breathing reduce the volume of oxygen you can inhale, but it does not allow you to fully exhale the small (inadequate) supply of used oxygen you just took in, which crowds out your small (inadequate) lung volume even more. NO WONDER YOU’RE TENSE! You have no chance of feeling relaxed when you’re SUFFOCATING!
Carbon dioxide causes the level of lactic acid to build up in your blood, causing muscle fatigue and adding, yes, another reason for tension (not that you needed one!).

Stop the madness! The only way for your O2 intake to be sufficient when you are stressed is to return to filling and emptying (most of) your lungs with each breath…and the only way to do that is SLOWLY.

(Practice now, as you read this.) A good way to slow your breathing is to breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Close your mouth to where you can use your lips to slow your speed of exhaling. If it is easier to inhale and exhale through your mouth, that works just as well.

Slower, longer breaths in, and slower, longer breaths out. Remember you have to pull the air through a long network of branches, and slowly inflate all those tiny air sacs. Then you have to empty them all. Counting to make your breaths about the same length, while keeping the air speed in both directions about the same, is the ticket.

Try this, not too fast: (in)…2…3…4…(hold it)…2…3…4…(out)…2…3…4…

Repeat the sequence over and over for a few minutes, until you find the length of breath (e.g. counting to 3, 4. 5, or whatever) and air speed with which your body is COMFORTABLE. No need to make the breaths too long or too slow, although they tend to become longer and slower as you get better at relaxation breathing.

Is it not amazing how just a few relaxation breaths like this can “clear your head” and calm your body? Stopping every few hours to spend just 2-3 minutes breathing is a great way to “re-center” yourself throughout the day, and position yourself to deal more effectively with stress.

Here’s a nice variation on the above when you have time, called “tensing and relaxing”: Lay on a bed or couch, or on the floor. Relax your body as much as possible, and similarly, let go of any worries or concerns. Take a few relaxation breaths: (in)…2…3…4…(hold it)…2…3…4…(out)…2…3…4…(or count to the number with which you are comfortable). Now, here’s the tensing and relaxing part: You will continue the relaxation breathing sequence throughout, but while holding your breath (the middle segment), you will also “tense” and hold every muscle as tightly as you can, then as you exhale slowly, you slowly release the tension in your muscles. Then take a few relaxation breaths without tensing and relaxing (called “cleansing breaths”), followed by another one with tensing and relaxing, followed by a few more cleansing breaths, followed by one more with tensing and relaxing. You should feel very relaxed by now!

Here’s a streamlined guide to relaxation breathing with tensing and relaxing:

1. Several cleansing breaths

(in)…2…3…4…(hold it)…2…3…4…(out)…2…3…4…

2. Tensing and relaxing breath

(in)…2…3…4…(hold it and tense muscles)…2…3…4…(out and slowly relax muscles)…2…3…4…

3. Repeat #1 and #2 several times

Have Fun Breathing! Oxygen is Good Stuff!

Filed in: Anxiety & Stress, Library

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