Take a Deep Breath

Exploring the Use of Breathing Techniques for Managing Stress

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It can feel like there are many things that are out of our control right now.

Once uneventful aspects of daily life — going to the grocery store, joining friends for a bite to eat — now cause a level of anxiety for many of us that’s a little hard to get used to. In managing the stress that can be associated with this, it’s important to remember that we have immediate access to a tool that can help alleviate it: our breath.

Most of us associate breathing as an autonomic process, and although breathwork has been practiced for thousands of years, it is now being backed by scientific studies, which show that when given a conscious focus, actively controlling our breathing using different techniques can help relieve our response to stress, in addition to other health benefits. Proactively managing this is becoming more imperative in the workplace, too, as stress and mental health-related issues cost U.K. employers £45 billion a year; that number is $300 billion in the United States.

“When you’re stressed or anxious, your body’s sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, and you go into fight-flight-freeze,” says Tim Snell, CPP APMP, coach, breathwork instructor and APMP deputy chief examiner. “Your tendency is to breathe from your chest (shallow breathing), and your heart rate goes up. This shallow breathing reduces your oxygen efficiency as well.”

Snell explains that with every bout of stress or emotions such as anger, the cognitive abilities of your brain are temporarily impaired, but studies have shown the physiological effect lingers much longer in the body. “That’s why when people are working with prolonged and extreme stress, they may say ‘I just can’t think’ — in reality, their executive functions are momentarily shut down. There’s often a combination of factors leading up to this point, as stress can lead to less physical activity, poor eating choices and less sleep, which have a compounding effect.

“When you make time to center, relax or go for a walk, you’re giving your mind a rest from the task at hand,” he says. “There’s some real wisdom in the suggestion to take a few deep breaths, and the fastest way to reverse stress in the body is to pause and elongate your exhalation — i.e., double the length of your exhalation to your inhalation.”

You can use a 2:4 or 4:8 breathing rhythm, meaning breathing in for two seconds and out for four seconds (or inhaling for four seconds, exhaling for eight). Doing this for 10 minutes will activate your rest-and-relax state.

“This simple breathing technique will bring you to a place where you’re not in reaction (fight or flight),” he says. “You reverse the physiological response and give yourself some space to think and respond, rather than react. The technique is so simple, it is often discounted out-of-hand.”

Bringing awareness to your breath can also be beneficial when dealing with anxiety-inducing situations at work. Looking for ways to help his bid and proposal team manage the stress of the job was actually how Snell got involved with the field of breathwork and mindfulness. “[In our profession], you go from one deadline to the next, and it’s continuous work that doesn’t stop. You are constantly problem solving, and the clock never stops ticking. This can take a heavy toll on the body, and there’s a real lack of awareness about the need for rest and recuperation from that.”

Snell also advises to be aware of your levels of stress and even fear when it comes to dealing with the overwhelm of the current pandemic. “There is a need to be cautious, and there is a need to look after yourself, but long-term stress, fear and social isolation can dampen your immune system,” he explains. “The reality is you cannot change what is, but you can choose your response to it. The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate our relationship to our life and our work, and how we can change for the better in the future.”

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