April is Stress Awareness Month in the UK and as we begin to ease our way out of most lockdown restrictions it’s probably a very good time to do a quick stock take of our state of mind and, sometimes out of control, stress levels. In a year where the Covid pandemic has caused an enormous spike in cases of poor mental health, being able to recognise and ‘catch’ ourselves before our stress levels begin to become too high is a very useful tool to have in our mental health armoury.
Whether it be work getting on top of you, feeling hemmed in by isolation (whether physical or social), an increased concern over health and the implications of going back to some kind of normal life, there are many reasons why our stress levels could begin to creep up just now.
So, take a moment. Have a go at this quick and easy breathing exercise and learn how you can start to take control of your feelings before they escalate into difficult to manage stress.
A Simple Breathing Exercise
This exercise can be done anywhere and takes just a few minutes. Ideally, once you’ve practised it a couple of times you’ll want to incorporate it into your daily routine - perhaps starting the day with it or using it as a relaxing tool to help with easing anxiety and stress at the end of the day.
- Make yourself comfortable. Stand, sit in a supportive chair, lie on a bed or on the floor with a yoga mat.
- Feel free to wear loose clothing but as long as you can breathe easily and feel comfortable anything will do.
- If you’re lying down take a moment to place your arms a little bit away from the side of your body and face the palms up towards the sky. Your legs can be straight or bent, whichever is most comfortable for your back
- If you’re sitting, place your hands on your lap facing up or if it’s more comfortable you might want to rest them on the arms of the chair.
- If you’re standing, place your legs and feet hip width apart.
- Take a moment to still your breath. Close your eyes if you find this easier to shut out external stimuli.
- Begin by taking gentle, regular breaths through your nose and out through your mouth. It can seem a little difficult at first but give it a few breaths and you should soon settle into it.
- Breathe gently and feel the breath flowing slowly and deeply into your belly.
Begin to Count
- Once your breath is settled down start to count steadily from 1 to 5 with each breath. Don’t worry if you don’t get as far as 5 at first.
- Without pausing or holding your breath, let it flow out slowly and gently, again counting to 5 if you can.
- Continue doing this exercise for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Enjoy the feeling of relaxation you’ve just created for yourself!
Why Breathing Exercises Work
Deep breathing techniques are long associated with calming stress, anxiety and even fear, but how do they work?
Often when we’re stressed or anxious, or bodies will go into their ‘fight or flight’ mode, preparing for battle or action that they need to be fully awake and adrenalised for. The body will send blood away from the brain and into our extremities to make sure our arms and legs are in top condition for use.
In the modern world, very few of our stresses are caused by impending physical danger from marauding gangs. In contrast most of them are stresses that absolutely require clear and present thinking, so the body’s natural process of sending blood away from the brain is in fact very counter-productive to alleviating the problem.
When we settle our bodies and engage in the process of deep breathing, we’re telling our body that we want the blood to be diverted back to the brain. As a result we begin to come out of the highly adrenaline-filled fight or flight mode back into a more conducive, clear and calm state, better for thinking clearly and in turn removing many anxieties and stress.
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