Conquer Holiday Stress Using Only Your Breath (And Stay Grounded Through The New Year!)

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

– Etty Hillesum, Dutch Writer 

The holidays are thought to be a time of celebration and union but they can also be a time of higher-than-normal stress levels.

Many of us tend to be more financially stressed during this time of year, and then there’s the stress of finding the perfect gifts and even braving the overly busy crowds at the mall.

Some of us are dealing with looming work deadlines and trying to “finish out strong” before year-end, while also preparing our tax returns.

credit: Sara Zimmerman

Some of us will feel challenged by family gatherings and certain family members.

And some of us will feel that all-too-familiar pang of the loneliness of not having our families close or missing those who are no longer with us.

Or maybe you’re experiencing the deflated feeling of coming to the end of yet another year feeling like you’re not close enough to your goal or that you haven’t made as much progress towards last year’s new year resolution as you’d like.

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. 

These things might appear to provide relief, but only in the short term. (Think 5 minutes.)

In the long term, (think days or even weeks), these things may 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 December and wrapping up the year.

But what if there were a proven, simple tool you could use to help you conquer the stress, overwhelm, anxiety, frustration, or irritation you’re feeling right now?

Would you be open to learning how to cultivate a simple 5-minute daily practice that’s proven to help you better deal with the challenges and demands you’re facing as you close out one year and begin another?

As it turns out, something as overlooked as your own breath can be an extremely potent tool in helping to transform holiday stress, anxiety, overwhelm, frustration, fatigue, and irritation. 

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

A regular and consistent breathwork practice has the power to help you set yourself up to win in the new year, and may even help you stay true to your New Year’s Resolutions.

In fact, breathwork has proven so effective that it’s often included as part of the training curriculum of 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?

It starts with what I call 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:

And there you have it – a 5-minute practice you can adopt now and bring with you into the new year.

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!

Let me know how you get on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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