Over the years, I have used many different tools that are designed to reduce stress. For me, being physically active is one of the best. It helps me to move my body, distract my mind from whatever it is that is causing stress, and often will help me generate a solution. As we’ve said so many times, creative breakthroughs come from the body.
But it is not always easy to take the time to exercise. I walk every day, but to really get my adrenaline flowing, I need a hard workout or focused time for yoga. So I rely most on the simplest, and in many ways most effective, tool we all have available. Breathing.
When we are under stress, we tend to operate from our ‘reptilian’ brain. That part of us that is focused on survival. From this place, our breathing becomes very shallow, and we are focused on whether we need to fight or flee. The challenge is that we often don’t leave that stress response to return to deeper breathing.
As a result, we are constantly in a state of oxygen deprivation. Not enough to kill us, obviously, because we can function and take care of day to day activities. But our ability to think clearly and see new possibilities is severely limited. Creativity and leaps of intuitive thought are restrained.
How do we change this? By bringing our awareness to how we breathe.
To start, sit quietly and take a breath. Look for signs of how your body is moving as you breath. Do your shoulders move up and down? Is everything still? Does your abdomen move outward as you fill your lungs with air?
When we breathe shallowly, our shoulders and upper chest tend to move little, if at all. The amount of time that it takes to inhale and exhale is minimal. And the pause in between breaths is nonexistent.
To change this, focus on relaxing your shoulders and filling your lungs completely. It can help to place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you breath, you want to feel the hand on your abdomen moving outward with an inhalation before your chest begins to move. When you breath deeply, there is a natural pause between the inhalation and exhalation.
Spending a few minutes focusing on how you are breathing allows you to see what your automatic pattern is. The more often you take only shallow breaths, the more difficult it will be to shift it to your abdomen. The more you practice taking deeper breaths and filling your lungs, the easier it will become to do when you are not focused on it. And, the more oxygen you will have to calm your heart rate, increase your ability to see new possibilities, and think through options.
The best part? It only takes a few minutes at a time, it’s free, and can be done several times a day without anyone else knowing what you are doing.
Jo Anne Nelson