Easing Stress With Help From the Breath
We can look back on the evolution of our species and think, “How simple it must have been back then.” Determining, with certainty, whether the threats of previous centuries were easier or more trying than those of our present world is futile. Would cavemen have traded their animal and elemental rivalries for the complexities that plague our modern times? It is hard to say, but perhaps not. The animal kingdom and elements would have certainly been a force to reckon with, but would they have consumed the mind relentlessly?
Setting aside curiosity about who had (or has) it better, one thing we can say for certain is that the way we adapt to threats, or stressors, has changed. Rather than questioning the validity and severity of the external stressor itself, a more productive inquiry might look into the shift in the body and mind’s responses to such threats.
Back in the days of cavemen, the stress response was used to protect the body from acute harm. In the face of danger, the body’s fight-or-flight response would kick in, releasing a surge of chemicals to help effectively respond to the threat. As part of this life-saving response, the adrenal glands would secrete the stress hormone cortisol until the threat subsided, at which point production of this hormone would also recede. This is the work of the sympathetic nervous system, allowing us to effectively respond to imminent danger.
This mechanism has not changed and functions the same today, but what does function differently is the frequency and persistency of the stress response. Within our fast-paced societies, the brain and body are rarely at rest. In an attempt to continually sift through the infinite choices and pervasive stimuli that surrounds, the body is constantly assessing and responding to new threats, largely perceived. Think transit delays, responding to text messages, constantly checking social media, and scheduling in the overabundance of important meetings, people, and activities. Our sympathetic nervous systems are on overdrive, constantly fighting these perceived stressors that do not usually equate to real, imminent threat. In the midst of these sustained environments of stress, the body stays in fight-or-flight mode; the heart speeds up, digestion slows, and breathing becomes quicker and shallower.
What would traditionally kick in to counterbalance this stress-busting response is the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the rest and digest system. As new, perceived threats present themselves almost feverishly, the parasympathetic nervous system is unable to adequately perform its job during these common and prolonged periods of stress. The mind and body stay on high-alert, becoming overworked and worn down.
These responses are automatic and unconscious and they highlight the body’s inner wisdom and ability to manage itself. Yet, as willful and thoughtful human beings, we maintain power to help guide the knowing body into various states of being using one of its very own automatic processes: the breath. Though the breath flows unconsciously, and though its initial response to stress is beyond our control, we can intervene by using the breath to elicit the relaxation response.
During periods of stress the breath becomes shallow. Breathing shallowly means the breath is drawn only into the chest area and only minimally into the lungs. By consciously guiding our breath deeper into the lungs and allowing the belly to rise, we begin to activate the relaxation response and the prevalence of stress in the body lessens. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and we quickly begin to experience feelings of rest and relief.
So how do we begin working with the breath in order to ease the stress we carry? We manage it by bringing our awareness to it.
Begin by sitting or lying down comfortably and with a straight back. Take a moment to find stillness and comfort and then a few more to simply observe what is happening in the body. What sensations are present? Where is the stress and how is it physically manifesting? What does the breath feel like? Where does it reside and how well is it flowing?
After a minute or two of this reflective observation, place your hands on the belly to help draw awareness to the often forgotten depth-potential of the breath. Begin to deepen the breath by breathing in slowly to a count of four. Allow the incoming air to reach further into the lungs and expand all the way into the stomach. Feel the belly rise, pressing into the two palms that hold it. Allow the exhalation to be just as space-aware, just as slow. Observe the way the chest and stomach fall as the breath moves back out. Repeat this deep breathing for a few minutes before letting the breath come back to its natural rhythm. Sit with it for another minute in awareness. Watch the way this steady stream rises and falls, the way it carries us through all the challenges, real and perceived, of modern day life.
This simple breath work brings the physical body into the chemical state of relaxation while also easing the emotional and mental bodies by drawing attention away from whatever stressors it is normally fixated on. It gives us that moment of release — that overdue break — in our busy days. It reminds us to pay attention to what is immediate, to what is truly and undoubtedly here, rocking gently beneath the stress that plays within the entanglements of the mind and body.
By bringing our awareness to our breath and by deepening it, we help it to reach its full potential. We help it to help us. This is how, beneath the stress of the everyday hustle, we find little pockets of peace. Through the breath, we find that the taste of sweet stress relief rests at the tip of our tongues, if only we find a few moments to breathe deep.