Breathing for stress reduction
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
Chronical stress and it´s side effects
Probably you can relate to the effects of stress on your body - from headaches, to an upset digestive system, to body aches etc. Furthermore, many of you are surely quite familiar with the effects of stress on your brain - like limited focus and concentration, decreased levels of creativity and reduced ability to socialize and interact consciously in relationships. In the short-term adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, is released increasing your heartbeat, your bloodflow is directed to your muscles and due to bronchodilatation it becomes easier to breath deep. In short: you are prepared to fight or flight - very useful when encountering a bear.
Unfortunately, it is less useful in an office environment, especially when the threat (not a bear but rather an unmanageable workload) is not temporary but persists - stress becomes chronic. As a result, cortisol, the hormone actually inducing the fight or flight mode, is released constantly. This chronic release triggers a number of reactions in the body like sleeping disorders, a lowered immune system, difficulty to learn and other effects as mentioned above.
A clinical trial from 2020 conducted among US university students found out that a program focused on yoga asanas (postures) combined with pranayama (breathing exercises) and breath-based meditation techniques significantly improved levels of "depression, stress, mental health, positive affect, mindfulness and social connectedness".
How breathwork supports the nervous system
So how does this work? Your body is breathed naturally, i.e., it is nothing you have to think about. Inhales and exhales happen automatically in relation to your state of mind and physical activity. Just imagine you have to give an important presentation at work - your breath runs short and shallow - almost unnoticeable as compared to when you are having a pleasant meeting with a friend and your breath gets deep and slow.
Your breath builds a direct link to our nervous system. The interesting thing is that you can consciously breath in a certain way and send a message back to your nervous system, inducing a sense of calm. This works on two layers both on a physiological level (by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) and on a psychological level (by diverting attention from thoughts).
Breathing deep and slow and steadying inhalation to exhalation ratio activates the vagus nerve (as part of the parasympathetic nervous system). When it is stimulated your muscles relax, your heart rate slows and your blood pressure decreases. Your brain receives this information too, inducing a sense of calm.
Furthermore, a study from TU München 2016 found that directing your attention on breathing eases stress and negative emotions by activating the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a brain area responsible for regulating these feelings.
Types breathing exercises that can help
It is advised that you start practicing pranayama under the supervision of a teacher, adapting the level to your needs and increasing counts and complexity gradually. Types of breathwork which help you slow down and relax are:
- Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)
- Brahmari (humming bee breath)
- Ujjayi (victorious breath)
- Sheetali (cooling breath)
An introduction on how to practice nadi shodana
Try to maintain the same length of inhale and exhale by counting your breath. Here are some steps to an initial nadi shodanan practice:
Connect to your breath. Begin by taking a full, deep inhalation followed by a slow, gentle exhalation.
Find Vishnu mudra (if you are used to it) otherwise just close your right nostril with your thumb
Inhale through the left nostril, then close your left nostril with your ring finger and open your right nostril by lifting your thumb
Exhale through the right nostril
Inhale through the right nostril, then close the right nostril and open the left nostril
Exhale through the left nostril.
... repeat the cycles for a couple of rounds ... then let your breath flow freely
Please reach out for further support on breathwork, mindfulness and meditation.