In an article from Reader’s Digest, “Change the Way You React to Stress,” Robert Fried, Ph.D., director of the Stress and Biofeedback Clinic at the Albert Ellis Institute and a senior professor of psychology at Hunter College said, “When you’re stressed, you may be sitting on the outside but running on the inside. Deep breathing for stress reduction means you’re sitting on the outside and you’re reposing on the inside.”
Once you’ve learned to do deep breathing, says Dr. Fried, author of Breathe Well, Be Well, it takes less work to breathe, thus reducing the amount of work your body has to do and sending a message to your brain that you’re inactive. After a while your body gets the signal and your heart rate and oxygen consumption slow.
The Deep Breathing Technique
This exercise combines deep breathing with mental imagery to help you feel relaxed yet alert. The results are immediate, so you can pull out the technique any time you need to feel calmer and more in control. Dr. Fried has used it in treating everything from tension and anxiety to burnout syndrome, panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression, tension headache, and high blood pressure.
A few notes of caution (yes, even something as seemingly innocuous as deep breathing isn’t entirely risk-free — a testament to its power to effect change in the body). If you’re not used to deep breathing, your diaphragm muscle will need time to adjust and become toned, so start slowly. If you experience cramps while doing the exercise, stop. Also, deep breathing may cause a significant decrease in blood pressure, so if you suffer from low blood pressure or fainting, be cautious when trying it. Check with your doctor before doing this exercise if you have a condition in which you may need to hyperventilate, such as diabetes or kidney disease. (Under certain circumstances hyperventilation may be the body’s protection against diabetic acidosis.) And diabetics, take note: The sudden reduction in blood levels of certain stress hormones has been demonstrated to reduce the need for insulin and may cause your blood sugar to drop.
Day 1. First, seat yourself comfortably, with your back supported by the back of the chair. Loosen any tight-fitting clothing and place your hands on your knees. Let yourself relax. Now you’re ready to begin.
• Close your mouth and breathe through your nose only.
• Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale, hold your chest and don’t let it rise. Let the hand on your abdomen rise as the air fills your lungs.
• Exhale slowly, pulling your abdomen back as far as it will go without letting that raise your chest in the process. Spend a minute or so on this exercise. If you feel dizzy, you are working too hard. Stop and rest a little until the dizziness passes, then make the motions a little more subtle.
Day 2. Follow the same routine you followed yesterday, but practice the exercise for two to three minutes.
Day 3. Breathe for four minutes, and try the exercise without your hands. You should now be noticing that your inhale and exhale are approximately the same duration. There should be no pause before or after inhale or exhale — just one smooth motion. Your breathing rate may range between three and seven breaths per minute.
Day 4. Today you introduce imagery. Sit in your chair as before. Now:
• Close your eyes.
• Picture a very specific scene — the beach in July, a cool pine forest, swimming underwater. Try to put yourself in the scene — hear the sounds, feel the air (or water), smell the scents.
• As you focus on this scene, begin your deep breathing. Each time you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in the air of your scene, saying to yourself, “I feel awake, alert, and refreshed.” And as you breathe out, feel the tensionin your body flow out with your breath as you say to yourself, “I feel relaxed, warm, and comfortable.”
Do this for four breaths, then stop. After a few minutes of rest, repeat the exercise. Try the routine once in the morning and once in the evening. After about three weeks, Dr. Fried recommends that you do the exercise in rounds of three: Four or five breathing cycles and a few moments of rest, followed by a second round of four or five breathing cycles and a few moments of rest, and finally a third round of four or five breathing cycles.
Once you’ve mastered deep breathing, you can pull it out of your relaxation arsenal whenever life gets tense. Not only will it help slow your body down, but it may also, in effect, slow down time, providing those critical moments that are often the difference between exploding and maintaining your cool. As you breathe in and out, release the physical tension and then ask yourself the following questions:
• Is the way I’m reacting to this situation increasing my tension?
• Is this reaction logical and reasonable?
• Is this reaction realistic?
• Is there another way to view the situation?
The answers may enable you to “spin” the stressful situation from the negative to the positive, or at least to the neutral.