Updated: Apr 5
What’s the best coping skill that only takes a minute, we all have and are doing all day long? This isn’t a sneaky riddle; it’s your breath! You breathe all day long. It’s essential for your survival, but it’s also one of the best coping strategies you have to manage daily stress and anxiety. Best yet, you can engage in intentional breathing no matter where you are or what you’re doing without others really noticing. Taking deep intentional breaths throughout the day can be an excellent way to reset your nervous systems, activate your parasympathetic nervous system, and manage stress and anxiety.
Why Should I Do It?
Deep breathing can also be preventative. Imagine you have an upcoming event that you know will be emotionally difficult. Preparing for this event by engaging in deep breathing can help reduce the physical or emotional symptoms you might experience. The event might still be very stressful for you, but your stress level may be at a 6 and not a 9; that’s pretty significant, isn’t it?
How Do I Do It?
Just inhaling deeply and feeling your belly expand can be restorative, or you can try a few different breathing techniques. One of the most popular ones is called “4-7-8 Breathing” developed and made popular by Dr. Andrew Weil and based on an ancient yogic technique called pranayama. This method involves inhaling through your nose for 4 slow counts, holding your breath for 7 slow counts, and slowly exhaling through your mouth for 8 slow counts. It helps to press the tip of your tongue lightly to the roof of your mouth where your two front teeth meet. Repeat for four or more cycles. When you first start breathing this way, you might feel lightheaded, but this will pass with repeated cycles and more practice. Try to practice at least twice per day so that it will become easier to enact when needed in times of anxiety.
Dr. Weil’s method is designed to fill you completely with oxygen and bring you into a state of deep relaxation and take you out of the “freeze, flight, or fight response” that happens during states of anxiety or stress. When we become anxious or stressed, our heart rate quickens, our breathing becomes shallow and quicker, and we take in less oxygen for all of the vital organs in our body.
One of the best things about this breathing technique is that it becomes more effective and easy to implement into your daily life the more you practice it. So keep at it! Maybe set a timer on your phone to remember to breathe. Or you can pick certain times in the day like before or after meals. This breathing technique can also be useful for times when you are trying to fall asleep at night or trying to manage insomnia.
How Does It Work?
Taking deep breaths fill your body completely with oxygen which also helps your brain release more GABA, the neurotransmitter that helps to calm you down and reduce neural activity in your brain, thus reducing the stress hormones that surge in times of anxiety and distress. Deep intentional breathing also sends a signal to your brain that you are safe. In times of anxiety, the “freeze, fight, or flight” instinct kicks in which prepares your brain and body to manage significant stressors. If you are taking slow deep breaths, you probably don’t need to worry about your safety. It’s almost like a little trick for your brain. If you can’t calm your anxious thoughts, forcing your body to be relaxed will do the job.
Another beneficial aspect of “4-7-8 Breathing” is that it forces you to focus on one particular activity at a time. This can be a mindful and meditative activity, just intentionally focusing on your breath. When you are more mindful, you are less weighed down and bothered by external stressors. With our busy lives, filled with noise, lights, sounds, and stimulation, taking a few minutes to breathe is essential. It’s one of the best self-care activities you can do for yourself!