Breathe

Holiday Stress: How To Manage The Uncomfortable With Grace & Ease

Posted December 21, 2019 • Read Time: 5 minutes

Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.

– Etty Hillesum, Dutch Writer 

The holidays… It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year right?

Maybe.

No other time of year is fueled with such an intense mix of emotions: joy, gratitude, excitement, grief, sadness, anger, annoyance, irritation, envy… the list goes on.

The truth is that for most of us, no matter how we choose to celebrate the holidays, it can be a stressful time full of unrealistic expectations, financial pressure, and family obligations:

  • the pressure of finding the perfect holiday gifts
  • braving the last minute rush at the malls and department stores thanks to socially expected gift-giving
  • family get togethers that send us off into an emotional tailspin
  • trying to avoid a confrontation with that family member or your in-laws
  • credit card debt increasing
  • holiday depression and anxiety
  • seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • holiday parties and social events we don’t really feel like attending
  • the pain of missing the loved ones that have gone
  • the stress of another year ending and us feeling like we haven’t accomplished what we wanted to
  • feeling pressure to host the perfect Martha Stewart approved Christmas dinner
  • the frustration of realizing you didn’t keep last year’s New Year resolutions… again
credit: Sara Zimmerman

Whatever form your holiday stress comes in, if not managed efficiently, it can eventually end up taking a toll on your mind, body, and spirit.

Unmanaged holiday stress can lead to us having knee-jerk reactions and subconscious automatic impulses that might have us reaching for booze, food, or any other comfort/ numbing agent and distractions that compromise mental health and well-being.

These things might appear to provide relief, but only in the short term. (Think in terms of minutes.)

In the long term, (think days or even weeks), these things leave us feeling drained, foggy, frustrated, irritated, bloated, and even hopeless.

This isn’t the ideal place to be while finishing up the last few days of the year, right?

 

But what if there were a proven, simple stress-management tool you could use to help you conquer the stress, overwhelm, anxiety, frustration, or irritation you feel? 

Would you be open to learning how to cultivate a simple 5-minute practice that’s proven to help you de-stress and better deal with the challenges and demands you may face as you close out the year?

 

The only thing you need is your breath.

The simple act of breathing slowly, consciously, and deeply can help you shift your mood in minutes. 

Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.

– Andrew Weil, M.D., physician, educator, and author 

Breathwork has proven so effective that it’s often included as part of the training curriculum for US Navy SEALs, SWAT teams, first responders, and even snipers.

How is it that something as simple as breathing can impact our stress levels and mood so much?

It starts with the Breath-Emotion Loop…

 

 

THE BREATH-EMOTION LOOP: 

Emotions and breath are known to have a deep relationship.

Animals such as the rat and rabbit have fast breathing and so are extremely nervous, mentally unstable, emotionally restless, and live only for short period of time.

In contrast, the elephant and turtle are slow, deep breathers and consequently have calmer personality and longer lives.

– Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, yogic researcher

Emotions and breathing rhythms have a two-way, symbiotic relationship because they both impact one another.

Breathing rhythms (aka the way you breathe) can be fast or slow, shallow or deep, short or long.

Breathing rhythms send messages to your body that affect your mood, your stress levels, and even your immunity.

The way you breathe can literally change your emotional and mental state.

If you breathe fast and shallow, your brain’s arousal center becomes hyperactivated. This can lead to increased alertness, wakefulness, excitement, or anxiousness.

If you breathe slow, deep, and long, you’ll become calmer because the arousal part of your brain isn’t being activated.

The connection between our brain’s arousal center and our breathing center. (Courtesy of Marc Krasnow, MD, PhD, the Krasnow Lab.)

Researchers at Standford University School of Medicine found an actual pathway in our brains that links our arousal center and our breathing center. (1)

The arousal center is linked to relaxation, anxiety, attention, and excitement.

So if you notice yourself start to feel anxious or overly excited or unable to focus just bring your attention back to the breath (more on that in the next section.)

And vice-versa, heightened emotional states influence the body’s breathing mechanism.

Feeling angry, anxious, excited, tense, or scared translates to short and shallow breathing.

Feeling relaxed, serene, or content translates to longer, slower, deeper breaths.

Our breath automatically responds to our emotional shifts. That is until we consciously control it.

Emotions cause changes in the body, and breathing is one of the bodily processes most impacted by emotions.

What’s more, a recent study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology seems to indicate that consciously thinking about breathing can help activate certain parts of the brain – parts that are linked to greater focus, calmness, and emotional control(2)

So how can we consciously use our breath to begin dissolving stress and increasing a sense of inner calm?

 

 

SQUARE BREATHING – A PROVEN 5-MINUTE BREATHWORK PRACTICE: 

This simple yet proven 5-minute breathing routine can become your new ally this holiday season.

This is the same breath training used by US Navy SEALs as mentioned before, so if it works for them it is very likely to work for you!

The technique is referred to as many names:

  • Sama Vritti in Yogic circles
  • Tactical or Combat Breathing in US Navy circles
  • Square breathing
  • Box Breathing

 

HOW TO:

1- Sit comfortably and upright.

2- For each inhale and exhale remember to breathe through your nose and keep your mouth closed.

3- With each inhale be sure to expand the lower belly outwardly as your lungs fill with air. With each exhale be sure to contract your lower belly inwardly as your lungs empty of air. (By doing this you’re further activating your body’s natural relaxation response.)

4- Remember to be consciously aware of each inhale and exhale (This will help to activate the parts of your brain linked to calmness, focus, and emotional regulation.)

5- Inhale for 4 counts

6- Hold for 4 counts

7- Exhale for 4 counts

8- Hold for 4 counts

9- Repeat steps 5-8 for 19 cycles (5 minutes)

 

Follow along with the diagram below if it’s easier for you:

If you can take time every day to just breath mindfully you can manage holiday stress more productively.

A little goes a long way!

And if you can also pair breathing with other healthy habits like regular physical activity then you’re really setting yourself up to win this holiday season.

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity – remember – if the US Navy deems it effective enough to use with their trainees in high-stress situations, then this can also be of benefit to you – IF you consistently practice it consistently. 🙂

 

Wishing you a peaceful, meaningful, and calm holiday season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

References: 

(1) https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2017/03/study-discovers-how-slow-breathing-induces-tranquility.html

(2) https://www.physiology.org/doi/abs/10.1152/jn.00551.2017

 

 

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