We’re going to talk about a really cool, easy and effective way to breathe in order to relieve your stress. Yes, like a breath of fresh air. But first, let me give you a deeper understanding of stress so that you can use this simple and effective breathing technique to your greatest advantage.
There is a difference between stress relief and stress reduction. Most people figure that if they are doing something to combat stress then it’s got to be reducing their stress. Unfortunately, that may be wishful thinking. The person might even say that they feel better, more relaxed. What’s the difference? Stress relief is symptomatic. It helps to calm you down and that’s a good thing. There are many methods for accomplishing this.
One of the easiest ways to relieve stress that is universally recognized is through altering your breathing. Calm breathing leads to a calmer mind. The method I’ll be explaining later is different than what you have likely learned if you’ve studied any breathing techniques, but let’s get back to the discussion of stress.
Stress relief manages symptoms, but does not address the cause of the stress. Stress reduction does. True stress reduction takes a lot of work and you have to commit to it for the long haul. You have to find the courage to face all of your fears head on – one by one. That’s right. And you need to know that all of your stress is fear-based. You are afraid that something undesirable or bad is going to happen and you may not be able to prevent it.
Our general approach to dealing with our fears is through avoidance and distraction. These methods can range from positives like being a gym rat to negatives like alcoholism and drug abuse. I have nothing against television, but it happens to be one of the greatest sedatives that you can take without a prescription. Ever find yourself just flipping through the channels to find something, anything to put your attention on? Are you getting the picture? At times like those, you might find it more productive to engage in a good stress relieving technique like a breathing exercise. More on that soon. I promise.
But, before we go further, I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a useful definition of stress. Stress is uncomfortable, if not outright painful at times. Your mind and emotions can act like a runaway train or an angry monkey on steroids. No wonder you would rather watch something mindless on TV. You don’t know what else to do. You don’t want to take pills or maybe you already are and you wish there was a better way than risking those side effects.
Due to the high incidence of heart disease, there is a lot of emphasis placed on cardiovascular health in Western medicine. Diet, exercise and, yes, pills all come to mind. It all comes down to improving the circulation of blood.
In energetic medicine (EM), it’s really no different in principle. EM sees all pain as due to poor circulation whether it involves the flow of blood, energy, thoughts or emotions. With stress, your thoughts and emotions are not circulating properly. It is like the “rewind” button in your mind has been jammed in the “on” position. The same negatively charged thoughts keep reappearing in your mind over and over and you’re helpless to stop them. So, stress is the poor circulation of thoughts and emotions.
Stress relievers like breathing and visualization techniques can unlock that rewind button, slow down that runaway train or act like a sedative for that hyperactive monkey mind. And that is a good thing. And that is the purpose of this blog.
But, if you want to go deeper, you’ll need to address the cause of stress. Despite what you might think, the cause of stress is not all of the stressful events around you, but how you process those stressful events. If you interpret something as bad, then it is more likely to be stressful (in a negative way) than something that you deem good. Let’s take an easy example.
We just got through the worst of the winter season with a decent amount of snow fall here in New Jersey. Depending on who you ask, you could find out that snow can be either good or bad. If you are in the business of snow removal, then snow is a really good thing. It’s extra income to pay bills, go out to dinner, buy a nice gift for someone special. The skiiers and snowboarders were pretty happy about the snowfall, too.
But, ask one of my patients with a bad back what they think of the snow and you’ll get a very different answer. Most people don’t care very much to drive in it either. It’s easier to lose control of your car and get into an accident or someone might hit your car. So, I ask you is snow good or bad? If you said “neither,” you are right! It’s just snow. Plain and simple.
So, you can see with this very simple example, that stress comes from how you interpret the events around you. And, don’t get me wrong, a lot of very serious and “bad” things do happen. There is, sadly, a lot of injustice in the world and while we might all agree when something bad has happened, many of us will process it quite differently. So, there you have it – a very brief introduction to the difference between stress relief and stress reduction.
Now, let’s get you started with the easy one – stress relief. Why is breathing a good place to start with stress relief? One reason is because you are always breathing and another is because your breathing is adversely affected by the circulation of stress hormones in your body. Because of that, you can learn to breathe in such a way as to reverse the affects of stress hormones on your breathing.
If you have tried out a wide array of breathing exercises like I have, you might not have run into this one. I learned it a long time ago from an Alexander technique teacher and it has remained my favorite for multiple reasons. It is easy to learn and very effective at calming you down. I don’t remember if it had a name, but I call it Cleansing Breath or S-Breathing. The “cleansing” refers to the increased release of stale gases from the lungs. The “S” refers to the sound made when pressurized air is slowly released. You’ll see. If you’re old enough to remember the hissing of the old steam radiators in the winter, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s also the sound of letting air out of a bicycle tire.
Anyway, what I have found different about this breathing technique is that it focuses on your exhalation while the inhalation is allowed to occur naturally without any conscious interference. Most of the popular breathing exercises focus on the inhalation and filling your abdomen as if you are inflating a balloon. This exercise is more about letting the air out of the balloon slowly and trusting your body to take in just the right amount of air on the inhalation. Enough talk. Let’s get down to brass tacks (whatever that means).
Here comes all the usual preparation. Find a comfortable place to sit where your spine will be supported in its natural alignment. Close your eyes and observe your breathing for a few breaths. On your next out breath, make a soft hissing sound as you exhale slowly through your mouth. Allow your exhalation to taper off naturally. Because this is a relaxation exercise, you are not trying to force out any extra air. Trust your body here. It knows what to do. It breathes for you all day long while you’re busy doing other things. You are just giving it a little help in removing more stale air from the lungs. That is the cleansing part.
When you are ready to inhale try to do so through your nostrils. You may find that your lungs want to take in a lot of air more quickly than your nostrils can handle. If so, then continue the inhalation through your mouth. It will settle down after a few breaths and find its own gentle rhythm and you’ll get back to inhaling through your nostrils. You’ll find it very relaxing in a short while. The benefits of increased oxygenation of the blood are far too numerous to detail here.
Continue to do this throughout the day as often as you like for as long as you like, but for at least 3-5 minutes once or twice a day. Like anything else that you do to improve you health, the benefits are accrued over time, so try to make a habit of doing it at specific times. And try it before going to bed.
Are there times you shouldn’t do it? If you are driving and find it distracting, then don’t do it. If you have just eaten, wait until you digest before doing it. You might also find that it’s not always be practical to hiss around other people. With practice, you will find that you can do essentially the same breathing pattern without making a noticeable sound.
To your health and until next time,
Your Friendly Acupuncturist