Stress management: Take it one breath at a time

Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2010

Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series focusing on stress management.

None of us is immune to stress. In fact, the stress response is an essential survival tactic that enabled our ancestors to respond instinctively and quickly to physical threats. The basic options would have been to defend ourselves (fight) or flee for our lives (flight). In the modern world, our bodies continue to employ this "fight or flight" response even though we may no longer face the same physical threats as our predecessors. Although encountering a bear while hiking might cause some stress, the majority of our stressful situations occur when we feel threatened emotionally, mentally or socially.

The stress response is meant to be beneficial for short-term situations, but chronic stress causes long-term damage to our health. Fortunately, we have the tools to counter the stress response if we listen to and understand what our stress is telling us. The next several articles in this column will address simple ways we can decrease stress and increase health and happiness in our lives.

A few weeks ago, I sat at my windowless desk to face a very hectic Monday afternoon. Stacks of papers littered the floor because the desk had already overflowed with papers. The phone rang while several time-sensitive e-mails popped up in my inbox. I had a last-minute meeting scheduled for 2 p.m., a writing deadline due soon afterwards, and a class to teach in the evening. I knew I had to pack for a work trip the following day, but I couldn't find my umpteenth to-do list because it was in the pocket of a jacket I had not seen since the week before!

My mind raced in different directions trying to keep up with everything when I realized that the stress was beginning to affect my judgment, mood, and overall well-being. I put everything down, turned away from my desk, and took the time to breathe before returning to the melee.

We often take breathing for granted because it is usually an involuntary action, yet not all breathing is the same. When concentrating on a challenging task or when stressed, our breathing can become shallower and quicker than normal. According to stress management expert Dr. Brian Luke Seaward, this shallow breathing is called thoracic breathing, or breathing that takes place in the chest area.

"Thoracic breathing increases the release of stress hormones which increase blood pressure and heart rate," Seaward mentioned at a recent presentation in Juneau.

To manage stress, Seaward and other experts recommend a slower type of breathing called diaphragmatic breathing, or abdominal breathing. Rather than holding our stomachs in and limiting our breath to the chest area, we allow our abdomen to expand as we inhale deeply and completely. This is how infants naturally breathe and it is also how we breathe while sleeping. This is also the kind of breathing practiced in yoga and tai chi.

"When you are in a stressful moment, you should become more aware of your breathing," said Stephanie Quigley, ashtanga yoga instructor and owner of Raven Yoga Shala in downtown Juneau.

According to Quigley, yoga emphasizes the quality and evenness of the breath. The duration of the inhalation and exhalation should be equal. Yoga breathing is slow and deep, allowing more air to enter the lungs than with shallow breathing.

"We have so much lung space we don't use," Quigley observed. "The more lung space we use, the more oxygen enters the blood."

This type of breathing encourages relaxation and helps us to think more clearly when we most need it. As an added benefit, "the breath moves energy through the body, which then energizes us," Quigley said.

Anyone can incorporate this kind of mindful breathing into their lives, not just people who practice yoga and tai chi.

"When you become more in tune with your breathing, you will notice that you can do this kind of breathing all the time," Quigley said. "The goal is to weave awareness of breathing into your daily life."

To better manage stress, pay attention to your breathing when you start to feel anxious or unsettled. When you notice that your breathing has become shallow and quicker than normal, take a moment to close your eyes, clear your mind and inhale deeply and slowly to the count of three. Pause a moment and exhale to the count of three. Repeat this cycle as many times as necessary before opening your eyes and continuing with the task at hand. Hopefully you will find, as I did, that breathing deeply made all the difference.

In some ways, shutting out the world and paying attention to our breathing resembles prayer. Many people who pray as part of a religious practice understand that prayer shifts the focus onto to something greater than themselves. In any case, a moment of quiet reduces the burdens placed upon the individual and helps put a stressful situation into better perspective. With greater mindfulness, each of us can cultivate a place for calm in our lives, one breath at a time.

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau, Alaska.

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