How to activate the relaxation response using your breath.
Deep belly breathing is a powerful tool for managing stress, overwhelm, and triggered reactions – it’s simple, quick, always available, and it can be discrete enough to use in any situation. But there’s more to it than saying ‘just breathe’! In this article I’m going to share two effective breathing techniques with you, and how they work as a tool to self-regulate the nervous system and activate the relaxation response.
How does breathing help?
Our breathing can directly influence the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (activating) and parasympathetic nervous system (calming).
Shallow breathing or taking a short, sharp intake of breath through your mouth (like what happens when you get a fright) can activate the sympathetic nervous system and the fight or flight response. In contrast, deep, steady, belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the rest and relaxation response (ie. the opposite of the fight or flight response). You can start to feel calmer and more focussed within minutes of deep breathing. So with our breath, we can consciously counteract the stress response and help to calm ourselves down.
When you recognise the signs of stress happening, you can use calming breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and box breathing to bring yourself into the present moment, trigger the relaxation response, turn down the fight or flight response, and move into a more present and aware state.
When are these breathing tools helpful?
Breathing tools can be useful for both ‘general relaxation’ and ‘urgent relaxation’ (so to speak).
Firstly let’s talk about general relaxation – ie. something you might want to do at the end of the working day. The nature of stress is that we can easily overlook when we are caught up in a degree of stress, and keep pushing through it – without even realising that’s what we’re doing – carrying the stress with us and letting it build up. By putting in some regular ‘un-stressing’ practices, we can let our awareness reconnect with our bodies, tune in, and unwind. If you are a practicing meditator, you will already be doing this with your daily meditation practice – hooray for that. If you aren’t a meditator, then you might like to try doing some quiet diaphragmatic breathing, observation, and reflection for 5-10 minutes each day – perhaps during your lunch break, after work, or before picking the kids up from school for example. Pay attention to what you notice in yourself and the benefits that arise for you.
The second scenario they are useful is for urgent relaxation (so to speak) – ie. when you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or worked up, to help calm yourself down and bring yourself into a more present state of awareness.
By consciously performing these breathing practices, we can interrupt the unconscious patterns and stress reactions that play out in our minds and bodies.
How to do it
Tip: Practice these techniques when you are feeling relaxed. Soon enough you will have the hang of it, and will be able to do it anywhere, anytime, while on-the-go – even mid-conversation.
Important: when doing these techniques, we want the inbreath to be through the nose, deep and steady, with an equally long, steady, controlled outbreath. The outbreath should be at least as long as the inbreath to avoid over-oxygenating or hyperventilation.
Deep Belly Breathing (Diaphragmatic Breathing)
The aim of diaphragmatic breathing is to breathe deeply and fully into the lower part of the ribcage where the most oxygen exchange occurs, drawing the diaphragm down to fully expand the lungs and fill up the lungs with air (as opposed to breathing shallowly into the chest).
To practice, put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach just under the rib cage – if you are breathing deeply into your belly you should feel the hand on the stomach moving while the hand on the chest stays relatively still. The trick is to ensure that you are actually filling up your lungs with air, as opposed to simply pushing the belly out.
Start by sitting comfortably upright in good posture - ie. straighten up, let the shoulders relax down and back; head and neck are relaxed.
Bring your awareness to where your breath is going in your lungs – start to deepen the breath: breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, down into the belly. (With one hand placed on your belly and one on your chest, you should be able to feel your belly and lower parts of the ribcage expand while the upper chest stays relatively still).
Breathe out slowly through pursed lips - slow your exhale to match your inhale. The breath is long, slow, steady and regular.
Continue breathing deeply in and out, making sure your breaths are nice and even, as well as being slow – it can be helpful to count your breath in and out to help maintain a regular cycle. The outbreath should be at least as long as the inbreath to avoid over-oxygenating or hyperventilation.
Counting the breath also helps take the focus away from the stressful or worrying reaction in the body, allow you to further settle.
Box Breathing (aka 4-Square Breathing)
This technique is to do deep belly breathing with a steady, gentle hold in between each breath to a count of 4. Note that the inbreath is through the nose, deep and steady, with an equally long, steady, controlled outbreath.
Breathe out, letting out all the air from your lungs
Deep belly breath in for a count of 4; hold gently for a count of 4
Full breath out for a count of 4; hold gently for a count of 4
Continue breathing in for 4, holding for 4, out for 4, holding for 4, in for 4, and so on, until you feel calm and settled again