Breathing And Relaxation Exercises For Stress And Anxiety
This article will quickly summarize some well-known and often-recommended breathing and relaxation exercises. They can be employed to help reduce anxiety in the moment, or to buoy your overall mood and curtail stress. Here I'll go over the principles and techniques behind them. This other article goes into more detail about their overall effectiveness, as well as their limitations.
The overall principle behind why breathing and relaxation exercises work
I'll try to be concise and not turn this section into a snippet from a biology textbook. When you're stressed or anxious our bodies and nervous systems become aroused. We breathe more quickly, our heart beats more rapidly, adrenaline is released, and so on, as our body gears up for a possible threat. Our thoughts tend to follow suit. When we're stressed our minds race and focus on things we see as potentially dangerous (e.g., people at the party who may not like you, that supervisor you can never please, what will happen if you don't get enough shifts at work this month, etc.)
Our stressed out physical state can be self-reinforcing. When we breathe short, shallow breaths it alters the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood, which causes additional anxious symptoms, like feeling dizzy and lightheaded. Mildly worried thoughts can snowball to the point where finding out you did a bit worse than you expected on an assignment has you reeling over possibly flunking out of school.
If we employ breathing or relaxation exercises we're doing what we can to put our body into a physiological state that's incompatible with the stress response. You can't be relaxed and keyed up simultaneously. You can't be breathing rapidly at the same time you're breathing slowly and deeply.
Breathing exercises are pretty simple to explain and try out, though you get the best results when you practice them for 10-15 minutes a day, until you get a sense of how they work. Also, when you're more experienced with them, you can calm yourself quite quickly. It's as if your brain develops a Pavlovian response of, "Every time I start doing these I get relaxed, so may as well become mellow right away." It's less effective to just read about them once and then try to pull a technique out of your hat when anxiety strikes.
There are lots of little variations on them, but most breathing exercises involve breathing more deeply and slowly than you normally do, and especially how you do it when you're stressed or anxious. To breathe deeply and effectively it's important to take breaths from your abdomen, or diaphragm, rather than your chest. The former is naturally calming, while the latter is something we tend to fall into doing when we're stressed out. Abdominal breathing causes your belly to rise when you inhale. Breathing from your chest will cause your shoulders to rise and your ribcage to expand instead.
If you feel yourself getting stressed or anxious, stop and notice how you're breathing
This isn't so much a technique you can use ahead of time, as a breathing-related way to you can sometimes nip an anxiety response in the bud. Try to get into the habit where as soon as you feel yourself getting anxious - whether because you notice a physical symptom or a worried thought - you ask yourself, "How am I breathing right now?" Odds are you'll observe you're breathing shallowly and from the chest. If you take a minute or two to breathe slowly from your abdomen instead, you may be able to prevent your nerves from getting any worse.
Remember to exhale fully if you're feeling really stressed
Some people, if they've already become really nervous and agitated, will feel like they can't catch their breath. This often makes them even more anxious. Why this happens is that they're taking shallow, rapid breaths and not breathing out fully each time. They fill their lungs with air, and then when they do try to take a bigger breath, there's no room. You can prevent yourself from getting to this point in the first place by concentrating on fully exhaling every time you breathe. If you've already gotten to the point of feeling breathless, breathing all the air out of your lungs before your next breath will remedy it.
Just trying to breathe slowly and deeply
Below I'll give a more structured, less casual version, but sometimes this is all you need to know. Just trying to breathe more slowly and deeply than usual, in any way, can be quite calming.
Here's an actual exercise you can sit down and practice. The numbers mean to inhale for four seconds through your nose (breathing from your abdomen of course), then hold your breath for seven seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Often when this exercise is described it will tell you to exhale audibly, by keeping your lips slightly open. You can always nix that part if you're around other people. Repeat the whole process about four times.
There's nothing magical about holding your breath for exactly seven seconds. On the whole the exercise is just forcing you to breathe very slowly. Depending on your body size or fitness level, you may need to adjust the numbers, while preserving the ratio of holding your breath and exhaling for twice as long as you inhale.
While you can practice breathing techniques anywhere, the relaxation exercises are more about setting aside ten or more minutes at home. However, on occasion you can employ mini-versions of them when you're out in the world. Rather than list a bunch of similar relaxation techniques, I'm going to talk about the elements they're usually made up of. Once you've experienced how they work, it's easy to mix and match the pieces to come up with a version that's effective for you.
Relaxation exercises often involve:
Taking slow, deep, relaxing breaths
I've talked about this already. Sometimes the breathing will be linking to other aspects of the exercise, such as imagining yourself blowing out all your accumulated stress and tension with every exhale.
This refers to:
- Wearing comfortable clothing. It's hard to relax if you've got an overly tight belt digging into your waist.
- Sitting or lying somewhere comfortable.
- Getting into a comfortable posture. This isn't about back straining meditation poses.
- Making the overall environment comfortable. Dim the lights, go somewhere quiet, make sure the temperature isn't too hot or cold, etc. Some people will even light some incense, or play a tape of soothing background music or rain sounds.
Being guided or self-directed
Relaxation exercises involve going through a series of steps intended to deeply relax you. You can come up with and follow this narrative yourself. There are also tons of guided relaxation exercises, where you listen to someone walk you through the process. A search on YouTube should turn up lots of free ones. Some people find it more effective to follow the 'orders' of a recorded voice, and find their mind wonders if they try to do things themselves. Others have really vivid, creative imaginations and can do a better job of calming themselves on their own, or they may find the pre-recorded stuff to have too many hokey or distracting elements.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Just as slow breathing is incompatible with quick, stressy breathing, having loose, relaxed muscles is in opposition to having tense, tight ones. Relaxing the muscles is often the main focus of many relaxation exercises. You work your way through each of your main muscle groups, contracting them tightly for a few seconds, and then releasing them. An example order may be for someone to systematically relax their: left foot, left calf, left thigh, right foot, right calf, right thigh, buttocks, abs, chest, upper back, left upper arm, left hands and forearm, right upper arm, right hands and forearm, shoulders/trapezius/neck, jaw, facial muscles.
Relaxation exercises work a lot better when you get your imagination involved. Soothing imagery can take several forms:
- While doing the exercises, imagining yourself somewhere very tranquil and calming, like on a beach, or in a sunny, flower filled meadow. The more details and senses you can add, the better. So if you were to picture yourself in a meadow, you'd try to imagine what you see, but also the feel of the soft grass against your skin, the sun warming your face, the sounds of birds chirping or insects buzzing, and the smells of the flowers on the air.
- Imagining your increasing relaxation in creative visual or physical ways. Like someone may try to feel themselves melting into Jell-O as they release each muscle group. They may picture their stress and tension as a gas which is dissipating from their limbs. They may imagine they have no bones, and their bodies have no choice but to be totally limp.
Little suggestions to yourself
As we get more relaxed we fall into a semi-hypnotized state where our minds are more open to suggestions. I'm not talking about being able to command yourself to quit smoking at this point. More that if you hear something like, "On the count of three you will become even more deeply relaxed", your mind will go along and make it happen.
At this point I was thinking of writing out an example relaxation exercise that involves all the elements I covered above. However, since I just described them all, going over everything again may be a bit wordy and redundant. It's also something that works better if you hear it, so you can follow along. If you'd like an example, what I'd suggest is going on YouTube and searching for something like 'guided relaxation' (one random video that came up for me is here). As I said, once you're familiar with the elements of relaxation exercises, you can play around with them to come up with ones that are effective for you. It's not like they suddenly fail to work if you switch one little thing around.