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  • Writer's pictureMark Bellamah

Self-Care: Breathing Techniques for Stress Relief and Focus

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Today's neuroscience upholds what the Buddhists have known for centuries: Mindfully focusing on the breath is a simple, easy way to control emotions and induce your body into a state of relaxation.  Through mindful breathing, you consciously use the outer game – how you interact with the world around you – to strengthen your inner game by slowing the hamster wheel of the mind.

The Science of Stress (In Brief)

When our reptilian or lizard brain (the limbic system) senses stress - real or imagined - it releases hormones to prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response.  Our sympathetic nervous system's stress response results in the production of cortisol, which increases respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar; it also suppresses the immune and digestive systems.  Millions of years of evolution have retained these functions because they underpin how all animals protect themselves - bare our teeth, raise our claws, or run away.  It's a physiological foundation shared with other animals up and down the Great Chain of Being.  For example, cortisol is the same hormone little fish secrete when being chased by big fish.  

Over time, repeated or continuous activation of the stress response takes its toll on the mind and body.  By keeping stress in check, relaxation is a cornerstone of long-term well-being.

Just Breathe

When you concentrate on and control your breathing, you consciously reverse your body’s stress response.  While all three breathing techniques presented below are variations on this common theme, each can be tailored and applied to specific situations in which they are most effective. The trick is to practice the techniques regularly so that they become habits triggered by stressful stimuli, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. 

4-7-8 Breath (Preparing for Sleep)

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is a breathing pattern developed by Dr. Andrew Weil.  Based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama, this mindful breathing method helps practitioners induce the relaxation response.  The Pentagon now incorporates 4-7-8 breathing, along with other mental hacks, into its training to help US military personnel quiet their minds and sleep better at night.   

This breathing technique should not be practiced in a setting in which you are not prepared to fully relax. While it does not necessarily have to be used for falling asleep, it can put you into a state of deep relaxation. Make sure you do not need to be fully alert immediately after practicing your breathing cycles. 

To practice 4-7-8 breathing, find a place to sit or lie down comfortably.  Be sure you practice good posture, especially when starting out. If you are using the technique to fall asleep, lying down is best.

Prepare by resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. You will need to keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. It takes practice to keep from moving your tongue when you exhale. Exhaling during 4-7-8 breathing can be easier for some people when they purse their lips

Here are the directions for one cycle of breath:

  • First, let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.

  • Close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.

  • For seven seconds, hold your breath.

  • Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.

  • When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern for four full breaths.

  • The holding of your breath (for seven seconds) is the most critical part of this practice. It is also recommended that you only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when you are first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full breaths.

5-5-7 Breath (Quick Stress Relief Anywhere, Anytime)

Also derived from yoga practice, this technique focuses your thoughts on the counting rather than allowing the lizard brain to run amok. It is particularly useful for relaxing the body to facilitate digestion just before mealtime. The 5-5-7 breath is a useful tool to improve relaxation anywhere, anytime, whether driving in traffic, sitting in a long meeting, or ahead of a difficult conversation.  This technique increases focus, improves digestion, and boosts metabolism, making you feel more energized. 

Here are the directions for one cycle of breathing:

  • Inhale through your nose for the count of five

  • Hold your breath for a count of five

  • Exhale out of your nose for a count of seven

  • If feeling extremely stressed, do this at least 10 times, for a total of about two minutes. Normally, four or five cycles clear the mind and bring you back into the moment. 

4-4-4-4 Box Breathing (Relief in Situations of Enduring Stress)

Box breathing is a technique you can use to calm yourself down with a simple four-second rotation of breathing in, holding your breath, breathing out, holding your breath, and repeating.  Also known as the Navy SEAL breathing technique, or “tactical breathing,” this technique is a surprisingly simple and effective way to regain calm and control of your thoughts when facing enduring stress.

Here are the directions:

  • Inhale for four seconds

  • Hold your lungs full for four seconds

  • Exhale for four seconds

  • Hold your lungs empty for four seconds

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