Everyone’s life has its stresses, but those difficulties are being intensely magnified by the pandemic. If you are feeling at the edge of what you can handle, or even beyond it, do yourself a kindness by looking for ways to reduce your stress. One of the simplest ways to do this is to attend to your breathing -- or to do what is commonly called mindful breathing. While it is simple, it’s often not so easy.
To begin, breathe through your nose, paying attention to your inhale and your exhale. Follow the flow of air coming in through your nostrils and feel it move into your belly and chest. Note the natural pause before your belly and chest deflate as you exhale. You are not trying to change your breathing, but rather just maintaining your attention on it. Do this for at least five breaths -- or 10 breaths, if you can. As you breathe, take notice, without judgment, of when your attention wanders. Label it as “wandering” and then return your attention to your breathing. By increasing your awareness in this way, you will likely notice that you feel calmer and more grounded in your body. With practice, you might want to do this for a longer time and find benefits from this. (For visual instruction on doing this, check out my mindful breathing video.)
While such mindful breathing can be enough to reduce your stress, it can also help you to become more aware of how you breathe, offering another way that you can use your breath to calm yourself. In addition to mindful breathing, you can help your awareness by placing your hands on your chest and your belly. Notice how much they move as you breathe. If your chest is moving more than your belly, you are mainly using your intercostal muscles (located between your ribs) to breathe. They pull minimal air into the upper part of your lungs, resulting in shallow breathing. This type of breathing is associated with stress and anxiety.
By contrast, when you engage your diaphragm (located below your lungs) more than your intercostal muscles, you will feel your belly expand more than your lungs. Your diaphragm pulls air into your lungs when you inhale, expanding your lungs downward. This kind of breathing is called deep or diaphragmatic breathing and it is associated with reducing stress-induced tension.
By practicing deep breathing, you can decrease your anxiety and increase your energy. To do this, attend to your awareness just as you did in the mindful breathing exercise. But as you do, consciously inflate your belly as you breathe in and allow it to deflate as you exhale. If you place one hand on your chest and another on your belly, you will notice more movement in your belly.
If you struggle with anxiety and stress, and you have never tried mindful breathing or deep breathing, it is well worth your effort to give them a try. They don’t require a lot of training, though there is a learning curve. If you do either one as a daily practice, even for just a few minutes, you will likely feel calmer and more at ease.