A Lesson on Breath Work
By Midwife Lauren
Stress: To say it’s around in abundance these days is an understatement!
Some of us are feeling it in really profound ways during this pandemic while we try to press on with day-to-day life, and the effects are palpable. Others may not really feel that stressed, but low level stress that slowly grinds away at you is a real thing, and may be affecting you — with the huge shifts in normalcy, and the constant influx of intense news about social justice issues, the pandemic, and everything else in life as we continue to continue on.
In my constant struggle to find balance in life, I’ve done a lot of personal study into breath work and how helpful this can be to quickly lower stress levels and help re-calibrate your body when you’re worked up. I find it hugely powerful. In this short article, I’ll run you through three simple breathing exercises (my favorites) to keep in your back pocket to help you get your calm back on. Remember, it’s how we respond to the stress in life, rather than the stressor itself, that makes the difference.
The science behind stress:
When you feel suddenly stressed or upset (e.g. getting cut off while driving, or watching your toddler throw their whole dinner on the floor for the second time in a row), your body sends signals to your sympathetic nervous system that something is wrong. This cues a body-wide stress response called “fight or flight.” Your adrenal gland takes note by pumping out the hormone cortisol, whose main job is to help you prepare to fight when you’re in danger. This is a fantastic response when you’re actually in danger… among other things, your pupils dilate, allowing you to take in as much information as possible; your senses all become sharper; and your blood pressure spikes, making sure every organ and muscle is perfused with oxygen and in fighting shape. This is how humankind rises up to confront danger, and it’s quite effective! Unfortunately, in modern-day life, this response can be triggered by non-life-or-death situations too… and it is often total overkill! You could be in a tiff with your partner, stuck in traffic, or stressed by an email from your boss, and this same intense fight or flight response occurs. If this happens very often, cortisol levels may become unregulated, taxing your adrenal system (the place in your body where cortisol is released) and causing long-term issues. Frequent unregulated increases in cortisol can cause increased rates of depression, weight gain, trouble sleeping, headaches, and concentration, memory issues, and more. Self-care and managing stress are important!
Employing breath work is proven to:
• Decrease the stress hormone cortisol
• Increase focus and attention
• Decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression
• Increase your immune system’s ability to fight inflammation and illness
How does breath work change stress?
I’m sure you’ve been worked up and heard someone say, “Just take a few deep breaths.” To be totally honest, that used to cue an eye roll from me, but not anymore! There’s actually a lot more to it than just breathing. Current research suggests that simply slowing your breathing actually triggers your jumpy sympathetic nervous system to scale back that domino response to stress, and also trains your brain to do the opposite, which is to relax. This, in turn, decreases your cortisol levels, saving your adrenals from doing unnecessary work and cutting back on the yucky long-term effects that can come from uncontrolled stress. Slowing your breath resets your body and reminds the “inner you” that you’re not in danger, that everything is okay, and that it’s time to relax, please!
Breath work for your back pocket
Check out these three simple exercises, and give them a little practice, so you can remember how to employ them the next time you feel your blood pressure rising or feel like things are getting out of hand. It’s so powerful to have this kind of control over your stress!
Slow & Easy
This is my personal favorite, and the easiest technique to employ in day-to-day life. It’s great to use if you are feeling nervous, need to calm down quickly, are about to do something that triggers a lot of emotion, or just have some time to spare in traffic or before a meeting. I usually try to do this as soon as I feel my heart start beating fast, or when anxiety creeps in. It relaxes me almost immediately. Here’s how:
- Sitting quietly or lying down, if it’s convenient, you can place one hand on your belly and close your eyes.
- Inhale slowly, counting to six. Your lungs should be as full as possible, from the bottom up, by the end of six seconds.
- Exhale slowly, counting to six. Your lungs should be as empty as possible, from the top to the bottom, at the end of the six seconds.
- Repeat this slow six-second inhale and six-second exhale four more times.
- Congrats! You’ve already lowered your cortisol levels. Just one session of five full breaths per minute helps melt away stress.
- For maximum benefit, do this for more than one minute — slowly working up to 20 minutes per day is ideal.
Alternate nostril breathing is an ancient yogic technique of breathwork called Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates to “channel purifying.” There is fascinating scientific research that shows when you breathe in with your right nostril, it actually activates your body energetically and is stimulating; breathing in with your left nostril slows your heart rate, brainwave patterns, and respirations. By alternating between the two nostrils, you’re creating more balance between the two hemispheres of your brain as well as remediating any imbalances you may be experiencing. To do it, you basically take turns breathing out of one nostril at a time while closing off the other with your finger.
- Sit or rest quietly with your left hand on your lap and your right hand near your nose.
- Using your right thumb, gently press into the side of your nose, occluding (closing off) your right nostril, while breathing in through your open left nostril.
- Imagine your breath is going straight up in between your eyebrows. Some people like to press their “third eye” or the space between their brows with their right index finger to focus their breath up.
- Once your inhale is complete, pause at the top, release your right thumb, and switch nostrils by using your right middle finger to occlude your left nostril.
- Exhale that air out of the open right nostril, keeping your left nostril closed.
- Leaving the right nostril open, inhale, keeping that focus between your eyebrows, and then switch again.
- It should flow like this: inhale right, exhale left, inhale left, exhale right, repeat.
- If this seems confusing, look at the photo below to see how your hand may be placed, or watch this YouTube video, which is easy to follow.
- It’s easier than it sounds, and it gives you something to focus on while completing your calming breath work!
Visualizing Stress Release
This breath work model is very simple. You’re breathing in the positive and breathing out the negative. It can be helpful for those of you who enjoy visualization or those of you who have a moment to stop and experience a more meditative and inward form of breath work.
- Lying down or sitting quietly, place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart.
- Close your eyes, and as you inhale, imagine inhaling a long flowing beam of pure white light, cleansing your throat and belly and moving through your entire body as it enters your nose.
- Breathe so deeply into your belly that you feel the hand resting on your stomach rise and fall with your breath; your chest should only be moving about half as much as your belly.
- As you breathe out, envision all of your stress, anger or frustration leaving your mouth and nose and floating away. It may feel good to let these breaths audibly out of your mouth, sighing deeply and pushing them out until there is nothing left to let go of.
- Try to breathe in for at least five seconds and breathe out for at least seven seconds, inhaling fresh new energy and exhaling anything that is holding you back.
- Keep this up for ten to fifteen minutes if possible, or, just as long as you have time!
That’s it! I hope you’ve found some tools you can use for calming and healing. Experiment with them and give yourself and your body systems the gift of some peace. Let us know how it goes in the comments!
Lauren is a midwife at Dar a Luz Birth & Health Center who is passionate about the outdoors, nature, herbalism, river sports, international women’s health work, live music and instruments, and all animals but especially her dog Mila and two cats Krishna and Elle! She’s getting married in October 2020 to her sweet fiancé Evan. They have loved living in Albuquerque the past 1.5 years, and being close to the mountains. Prior to NM, she lived in Colorado, California, and Texas. Lauren also loves to travel and explore, to gain new perspectives and meet new people. She believes kindness and love have the power to change the world. Spread them!