Most people have felt it before, usually before a big presentation, a test, or even a first date: Your heart starts pounding, you feel short of breath, you're overheated, and your brain is racing a mile a minute.
One way to reduce the effects of stressful situations and take back control of your body is by practicing deep-breathing exercises. Deep breathing is one of the relaxation techniques the National Institutes of Health suggests, along with guided imagery, meditation, and progressive relaxation. What gives deep breathing an advantage over the other techniques is it's fairly simple to do and you can use it just about anywhere: on the train to work, at home, at the office, and wherever else you experience stress.
Getting Into It
Deep-breathing exercises work by helping to stimulate your body's relaxation response, which the American Institute of Stress defines as a physical state that mitigates your body's reaction to stress by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, relaxing any muscle tension, and slowing your breathing. It talks your body down from the "fight or flight" response that's commonly felt during stressful moments and helps you to return to a state of calm. It's also useful when practicing meditation or yoga.
What to Do
When you're first learning basic deep-breathing exercises, you will need to have both hands free -- no multitasking! When breathing deep, you want to breathe from your abdomen rather than taking short, shallow breaths in your upper chest, and you can check your technique using your hands.
Follow these simple instructions until you feel comfortable with the exercise, and then you can take it with you anywhere:
- Set aside time in your day so you have a moment alone. Find a cozy, quiet spot where prolonged sitting is comfortable and you won't be disturbed.
- Sit up straight, then place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Take a deep breath through your nose, counting to four as you inhale. You should feel the hand on your stomach rise while the hand on your chest stays still.
- Breathe out slowly through your mouth, again while counting to four. As you exhale, use your stomach muscles to expel as much air as you can. The hand on your stomach ought to move back down as your stomach deflates like a balloon. Again, the hand on your chest should not move much.
- If you find that the opposite hands are moving, try again while focusing on breathing from your abdomen. It may take a few conscious tries to get the technique right.
- Repeat these steps several times, for as long as it takes to feel a sense of calm.
If you are having trouble mastering the concept of breathing from your stomach rather than your chest, you can also try lying flat on the floor with a small, light object on your stomach. The goal here is for the prop to slowly rise and fall with each breath. If you're more of a visual learner, you can find guided variations of deep-breathing exercises online.
Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques have been proven to have long-term, positive effects on overall health and stress management. However, if you have persistent or irrational feelings of fear and dread, it's possible you're experiencing an anxiety- or stress-related disorder. Because these disorders are often caused by physical or mental illness, you may want to consult a mental health professional so you can get back to enjoying each and every day.