Stress Strikes! Part II

Stress Strikes! Part II – Strike Back With Breathing

A few years ago, two young men from Columbus, Ohio released a song entitled “Stressed Out.”  Some are calling it the millennial anthem, while the writer, Tyler Joseph, disagrees saying any generation can relate.  See for yourself.

Wish I could turn back time, to the good old days
When our mama sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.
We used to play pretend, give each other different names
We would build a rocket ship and then we’d fly it far away
Used to dream of outer space but now they’re laughing at our face
Saying, “Wake up, you need to make money”

Yes, we are we stressed out and it’s making our minds, bodies, and spirits sick. 

Our brains operate on four different brain waves from high to low: beta, alpha, theta, delta.  The beta level brain waves are where we typically operate from day to day.  Not surprisingly, they are associated with stress.  In our nervous system, they manifest as background static.  Imagine a radio station that is not quite tuned in completely.  You hear the lyrics in the background, “Out of student loans and tree-house homes, we all would take the latter,” but you can’t quite make out the music.  If only there was a way, to dial-in on that station precisely, access our alpha waves, and listen clearly and calmly to what is being sung.

Could one answer to managing chronic stress really be as simple as routine breathing exercises?  The empirical data speaks loudly with an emphatic, “Yes!”  You don’t need to spend a lot of time, it isn’t location specific, and it’s not going to be uncomfortable.  There’s really no good excuse not to try it.  So make a point to spend the next 60 days utilizing one or more of the following breathing exercies.  Why 60 days?  That’s about what it takes to make a behavior a habit. 

Counted Breathing

There are many different forms of this technique, which increases your theta brain wave activity.  These are the brain waves present when sleeping and in deep zen meditation.  It is useful in pacing your breathing as well as a form of meditation (more on that next week).  Keep in mind that your exhales should always be longer than your inhales.  This is important because elongating your exhales over a period of time slows your heart rate which, in turn, sends a message to the brain to relax.

Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth.  It should remain there for the entire exercise.  Your inhale should be silent, while your exhale should be an audible ‘woosh’ (push lips out to help).  Inhale for a countdown of five: 5-4-3-2-1.  Then exhale for a count of eight: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.  Repeat the process.  It will require focus to countdown while inhaling.  Your focus will allow you to empty your lungs completely and relax.

Another variation is known as “4-7-8 breathing.”  Again, your tongue is in the same position behind your teeth.  Inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight.  Repeat the cycle four times, twice each day.  Over time, the potency of this exercise increases.  In addition to helping with stress management and insomnia, this exercise is also helpful in resisting food cravings.  That’s a win-win-win!

Visualization Breathing

Increasing your alpha brain wave activity has a profound affect on stress.  Alpha brain waves are dominant when you are in an awake, idle state such as daydreaming and meditating.  These brain waves are most conducive to learning.  Increasing alpha brain waves reduces depression and promotes creative thinking.

In a position that is comfortable for you, close your eyes, inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth.  While inhaling, imagine your stomach is a balloon expanding as it is inflated.  As you exhale, imagine the air in your stomach escaping a balloon slowly.  Do not force the air out; simply allow it to escape in its own time.  If you so choose, you may imagine your balloon as your favorite color.  You may even choose to imagine yourself floating off the ground into the sky with each inhale (if that is relaxing to you).  This “inflating balloon” visualization can help you breathe deeply from your diaphragm.

Another visualization breathing exercise is to imagine the stress from within gathering into your chest as you inhale through your nose.  Next, the stress is blown out of your mouth as you exhale.  Begin by closing your eyes. Imagine the stress in your body travelling from all of your extremities and collecting in your chest while you inhale.  On your exhale, imagine the stress carried away by your breath as it leaves your chest through your mouth.  When the breath comes into contact with the air outside your body, it dissipates, vanishing before your closed eyes.  Slowly, repeat this process several times and feel your stress diminish.

Deep, Cleansing Breathing

Deep breathing exercises also increase the coveted, calm alpha brain waves.  When one hemisphere of the brain is pulling all the weight, stress ensues.  Have you ever felt mentally “stuck?”  Have you experienced powerful, overwhelming emotions, general discontent? Not feeling centered or calm indicates you likely haven’t had access to alpha brain waves in a long time. Because the alpha brain waves use both hemispheres of the brain, communication and clearer thinking improve.

Begin by breathing in deeply through your nose, taking in as much air as you can comfortably.  Then, release the air through your mouth while focusing intently on emptying your lungs.   Most people hold air in their lungs even after they exhale, so be sure to push it all out.  This will allow fresh oxygen to fill your lungs.  Repeat this several times and notice the tension release in your back, shoulders, neck, etc.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (ANB)

Typically, we breathe predominately through one nostril for 90 minutes at a time in a continuous cycle.  When the left hemisphere of the brain is dominant, we use the right nostril and vice versa.  By alternating breathing through the nostrils, we can develop the health of the brain, increase dopamine production by activating alpha brain wave activity, and even reach theta brain wave activity with intent practice over time. 

In preparation, begin by inhaling through both nostrils with your mouth closed.  Breathe deeply but do not force any of your breaths.  The pace should be at your own comfort level.  Block your left nostril and exhale out the right nostril.  You are now ready to begin the proper technique.  Keeping the flow gentle and natural with your mouth closed, breathe in through the right nostril then block it, and breathe out the left nostril.  Breathe in through the left nostril then block it, and breathe out the right nostril.  Repeat for a total of ten cycles.

Stress management is critical to everyone’s health, yet largely overlooked in our society.  It costs you nothing to try these exercises, and you can improve the quality of your life, not to mention longevity.  If you’re waiting for stress to go away on its own, don’t hold your breath.  Start breathing exercises today!

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