Stressed the Eff Out? Use Box Breathing As the Ultimate Chill Pill
Before you can take control of your mind, you must first calm it down. The fastest way to calm your mind, along with your body, is through slow and controlled deep breathing.
– Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL Commander, author of ‘Unbeatable Mind,’ & creator of Sealfit
Stressful situations are part of everyday life.
Often there’s little we can do to control them, and yet, we’re still impacted by them.
This can feel increasingly frustrating.
So what can we do to feel more in control during high-stress situations?
While we may only have limited influence over what happens in the external world around us, we do have the power to influence our inner world.
Your inner world includes your body and mind, your feelings and thoughts, your perceptions, beliefs, memories, and reactions.
The first point of entry into it is via the breath.
Correct breathing is one of the most powerful stress relievers we always have at our disposal.
Intentional and slow breathing exercises function as a much-needed reset button that helps us keep our cool in the midst of chaos…
Why your breath is nature’s ultimate chill pill:
Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health.
If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.
There is no single more powerful – or more simple – daily practice to further your health and wellbeing than breathwork.
– Andrew Weil, MD, author of Spontaneous Healing
Your breath is intimately tied to your nervous system by way of your autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Via its two branches, your ANS oversees basic bodily processes and helps to regulate functions like blood pressure and heart rate.
Its two branches act like two complementary opposite gears:
1) The Accelerator (aka sympathetic nervous system): oversees the fight-or-flight stress response.
2) The Brake (aka parasympathetic nervous system): oversees the regenerative relaxation response.
Stressful situations impact our breathing by making each breath short and shallow.
These changes in breathing rhythm then send distress signals to your nervous system and your fight-or-flight reactions are further activated.
When we’re in fight-or-flight mode our ability to think clearly and make sound decisions is affected.
Instead, our impulses take over and we have knee-jerk reactions rather than mindful responses.
Being in fight-or-flight also negatively impacts mental and physical performance.
This can all be reversed though, by simply retaking control of your breath.
This is how you can override the impact of stressful events – by bringing attention, awareness, and intention to your breathing rate.
Breathing slowly and deeply from the lower belly influences your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and causes it to switch gears from the accelerator to the brakes.
This helps to create a more calm state of mind that enables us to function from higher brain centers, which automatically improves mental and physical performance.
Breathing from the lower belly is called diaphragmatic breathing because it activates the diaphragm – a dome-shaped muscle that separates your belly from your chest.
Activating this muscle helps to turn on your relaxation response, which helps to:
– regulate your heart rate
– contributes to lower blood pressure.
– strengthens the immune system
– improves lung capacity
– supports mental health
The Box Breathing Technique is your best ally under pressure:
It’s hypothesized that slow and deep pranayama (yogic breathing) techniques can actually reset autonomic nervous system imbalances, so just remember to come back to your breath as a way to pause and hit the reset button whenever you need it. (1)
According to the Mayo Clinic, the regular practice of slow belly breathing can retrain your nervous system to function more calmly. (2)
This is where a simple technique called Box Breathing really comes in handy.
This one little exercise has really withstood the test of time.
Box Breathing is a modern name for an ancient pranayama (yogic breathing) technique called Sama Vritti.
“Sama” means “calm” and “quiet” in Sanskrit.
“Vritti” means “mental chatter” or “fluctuations of the mind.”
The mind experiences more fluctuations or mental chatter during high-stress moments.
By practicing Sama Vritti we begin to center ourselves and soothe and calm the over-active monkey mind.
Box Breathing is also called combat breathing, tactical breathing, equal breath, or four-square breathing.
This same technique used by yogis thousands of years ago is also used by U.S. Navy SEALs as part of seal training as well as Olympic athletes, first responders, police officers, and firefighters.
Because it works when you’re under pressure.
Don’t let the simplicity of this exercise fool you – if it works for Navy SEALs why wouldn’t it work for you?
How to practice box breathing:
We’re going to be breathing for the same number of counts for each step of the breathing process – inhale, hold, exhale, hold.
- Sit upright comfortably with your mouth, face, neck, jaw, and shoulders relaxed
- Try not to move your shoulders, neck, chest, or upper body throughout
- Breathe through your nose
- Inhaling for four counts
- Expand your lower belly outwardly on your inhale (this will activate the safety signals to the calming and soothing part of your nervous system)
- Holding for four counts
- Exhaling for four counts
- Contracting your lower belly inwardly on your exhale
- Holding for four counts
- Repeat for a minimum of 12 rounds (just over three minutes)
Follow the prompts below for a guided little mini-session:
Use this technique whenever you need it – when sh*t hits the fan or during moments of frustration, anger, or overwhelm.
You’re always breathing so you might as well use it to your advantage!
Even better yet, you can also add Box Breathing to your daily routines as a stress-management tool.
One full round of 4-4-4-4 breathing is 1 complete breath.
Can you commit to just 12 mindful breaths a day?
Of course you can 🙂
Each day you’ll take about 17,000 breaths so dedicating 12 to your mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing should be easy peasy.
(That’s only .0007% of your total daily breathing output, btw.)
The beauty of Box Breathing/ Sama Vritti is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. Practice it while you’re driving, waiting in line, showering, or even at the doctor’s office and no one will be able to tell. 😉
Learning to Breathe
For most of us, breathing is something we do without thinking. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we die. Everyday we take thousands of breaths. But most of us don’t even notice our breath. It’s one of those things that the autonomic nervous system takes care of, like digestion. If we stop breathing, we stop living, so our body automatically regulates our breath for us. But unlike digestion, we can consciously decide to change the pace and depth of our breath, and can actually impact our nervous system. (For the life of me, no matter how hard I try to concentrate, I wouldn’t be able to change the speed or way in which I digest food.)
The autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic (sometimes called fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (sometimes referred to as the relaxation response). The sympathetic nervous system helps us to survive by recognizing when we are in danger or stress by increasing our heart rate, producing adrenaline to give us a boost of energy, shutting down our digestion and reproductive organs and sending extra blood to our extremities and large muscle groups enabling us to flee. Cortisol, sometimes referred to as the stress hormone, is released and our ability to balance normal function is interrupted. When we were hunters, this came in handy, when an animal larger than us was threatening our lives. Even though we aren’t hunting or being threatened in this same way in modern day life, this part of the limbic brain still elicits these reactions when we are under stress, creating this extreme fight or flight reaction. Something as simple as a traffic ticket, phone call or bad news can trigger our sympathetic nervous system and send it into over drive. Going through infertility can cause chronic stress levels that start to take a toll on our hormonal balance, immune system and ability to regulate our nervous systems to the point of anxiety and depression equivalent to those who have been diagnosed with cancer or aids.
What can we do to combat this stress? Breathe
Yogis are aware that by being able to control our breath, we can actually shift out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system where our heart rate slows, our brain waves calm, our hormones begin to regulate them selves and we start to feel at peace. Dopamine is released in the brain, and we can boost our immune system and radically improve our health and overall wellbeing. We move out of the “reactive” and into the “responsive.” Returning our ability to have equanimity, patience and perspective. (Remember the Yo-Yo from last Blog?) When we are in the parasympathetic nervous system, the body is getting the message that we are safe, and the reproductive system comes “back online.”
Those of us, who practice and teach Yoga, know that the breath is the most important part of the practice. Without the breath Yoga would just be a seiries of stretches and wouldn’t have the deep healing capacity that it does.
In Yogic philosophy, life force or Prana rides on the breath. Prana can be taken in different forms, breath, food, light, it is life-giving energy and feeds every cell in our bodies with sustenance. Pranayama is the practice of breathing in specific ways to enhance and cultivate this life force in our bodies. It opens the body from the inside out, increasing oxygen to the blood, brain and organs, detoxifying via the lungs and brings us present through observation of the breath in the body. By observing our breath in this moment, it is hard to spin into future worry or past regret, we must notice what “is” right now. Learning to be with “what is” is the first step in learning to receive. (Remember the Divine Feminine Principle?)
So, one of the most basic breathing techniques in Yoga is called Ujjayi Breath, translated as “Breath of Victory” or “Conqueror’s Breath. “ Not a bad thing to have in your back pocket when going through reproductive difficulties. I teach this breath at the beginning of my Strong Yoga4FertilityÔ DVD and have found that it is the best tool women can use when facing stress in their every day lives to take back their power on their path to fertility. I will teach you how to “Ujjayi breathe” in the next blog. In the meantime, notice that you are breathing and how you breathe. Becoming aware is the first step in transformation.
In the last Blog we talked about the ability to impact our nervous system with our breath. How to move out of “fight or flight” and into “the relaxation response.” By learning to do this we get to have the control button on our nervous system and not be a victim of our reactions. Sometimes going through reproductive difficulties is like getting on a roller coaster with no speed control, the ride can be frightening and leave you weak in the knees and sick to your stomach. Learning how to breathe while on the ride can actually be the difference in feeling out of control or daringly adventurous. Remember we are learning that we can’t always control what happens, but we can manage our reaction to what happens, there by, arresting the stress response from taking a chronic toll on our reproductive hormones and function.
This is the practical step by step how to learn Yogic Ujjayi Breath (Breath of Victory) at home.
Sit in a comfortable position with your spine long. Make sure your pelvic floor is level (if you are sitting in a chair, uncross your legs) by sitting evenly on both sitting bones.
Hold your right hand, palm facing you, about 6” in front of our face.
Purse your lips like you are going to blow out a candle and exhale, blowing on the palm of your hand. Notice the temperature of your breath.
Now, take another breath, and this time open your mouth and make the aspirated sound “HA” in your throat as if you were breathing on a pair of glasses to clean them. Blow into your palm again. Notice the temperature this time. (It should feel warmer)
By making the “HA” sound in your throat, you are constricting the epiglottis at the back of your throat and are able to control the inflow and outflow of the breath by making it longer, warmer and audible so you can hear and feel your breath in your throat.
Now, breathe in through your nose, then, dropping your jaw and making the aspirated “HA” sound in your throat as you exhale. Inhale again through your nose and this time halfway through your exhale, while m aking the “HA” sound in your throat, close your mouth and hear the “Ujjayi sound” in the back of your throat. Keep making the aspirated “HA” sound in the back of your throat as you inhale through your nose again. (The inhale is slightly harder to find, simply slow the inhale down at the bottom of the exhale and imagine you are inhaling through your throat, not your nose) When done properly this sounds a bit like Darth Vader or the Ocean.
Once you have the sound consistent and can hear it on both the inhale and exhale, close your eyes and start to slow your breath down to even counts on the inhale and exhale. (eg. Inhale count of 4, exhale count of 4, inhale count of 8, exhale count of 8.) Watch the breath enter your body and fill out your lungs and lift your heart, bringing more space into the inside of the body. As you exhale, keep this space you created and simply soften around it, letting go of any tension you may unconsciously be holding in your neck, shoulders and belly.) Breathe several rounds watching and listening to the breath in this manner with your eyes closed. When you feel you have the hang of it and everything has slowed down, from your breath, to your heart rate, to your thoughts, stop controlling the breath and simply breathe normally and notice the impact the breath had on you.
Taking time every day to create “breathing room”, even if it is for just 20 sec. can reset our nervous system and bring us present, connected to our body and breath, and aware of where we chronically hold tension. This practice alone can make the infertility journey go from an out of control roller coaster ride to an unexpected adventure in the span of a few breaths. I tell my new students to breathe for 5 min “on the hour every hour” for a week just to get them in the habit of breathing with awareness. If you are the type of person that makes this another thing to “fail” at and it adds stress to your life, simply try doing “Breath of Victory” whenever you start to notice that you are feeling stressed and take a little “breathing room” for yourself instead. Your nervous system will thank you. As an added benefit, when you do become a parent, learning to count to ten and breathe like this will make you a more conscious and less reactive parent as well. Might as well start practicing now!
Feelings and Stress
Last month’s blog was about learning to breathe. By allowing some space between you and your stress, you are beginning to learn that stress isn’t what happens to you, it’s your reaction to what happens to you! This can be a profound distinction for most of us. Especially when dealing with reproductive difficulties. So if you are feeling stressed, you are not alone, this is difficult to deal with, but not insurmountable.
Most of us get caught up in the “story” of our lives and have a hard time distancing ourselves enough to see beyond the immediate crisis to the opportunity to heal our selves. We get overwhelmed by the stress, and feel like a big rubber band about ready to snap. We get triggered daily. The supermarket is flooded with babies in shopping carts, all of our friends are having baby showers, it seems like everyone in the world is fertile but us. Our friends and mother’s in law just keep saying, “relax and you’ll be fine.” It’s infuriating. Right?
The good news is, more and more people are learning that mind-body techniques like Yoga and meditation help to strengthen their ability to cope with the emotional rollercoaster and inevitable stress of trying to have a baby. The key to transforming your relationship to stress is to stop letting it. It won’t go away, but learning to manage it is important to your overall well-being and immune system as chronic stress can start to tear down the bodies defenses and create long term vulnerability to illness.
So stress is bad…now what? What can you do to deal with it? Observe and Breathe.
Breath itself can shift you out of stress and into a more relaxed state allowing you a moment to observe, step back and respond instead of react. (Remember Ujayii, Breath of Victory? See previous Blog if you missed it)
For instance, in any yoga class, when you start to learn to breathe into the discomfort of a pose and observe, watch and feel what is happening, you begin to learn to deal with the stress of infertility off the mat and begin to apply the same levels of breath, observation and getting in touch with your feelings in life. Yoga teaches you to tune in to what your body is telling you and to act accordingly. If we can distance ourselves enough to observe, watch and feel what is happening, then we have an opportunity to not react, but respond. There is a shift in perception, you begin to notice the triggers that cause the feeling of wanting to snap, and you can begin to breathe and note that you have a choice to deal with the urgency and disappointment one moment at a time. You can start to detect what triggers your stress, the initial spark that sets you off, and pause long enough to take a breath and consider that maybe this isn’t worth snapping the rubber band for. Or if you have already reacted, it’s a way to calm yourself down to the point that your heart rate can calm, your blood pressure can reduce and your brain can think more clearly. When we are stressed we aren’t thinking clearly because the hormones released into our blood clouds our ability to reason, we are flooded with adrenaline, cortisol and pure emotion which wreaks havoc on the endocrine system.
When this happens, take a moment to breathe and be with what you are feeling.
“Make it a habit to ask yourself: What’s going on inside me at this moment? That question will point you in the right direction. Don’t analyze, just watch. Focus your attention within. Feel the energy of the emotion. If there is no emotion present, take your attention more deeply into the inner energy field of your body. It is the doorway into Being.”
From Eckhart Tolle~ The Power of Now
The Stress of Living with Uncertainty
Studies have shown that going through infertility is the stress equivalent of being diagnosed with Aids or Cancer.
How do we deal with the stress that accompanies reproductive difficulties? We now know how to breathe. (See previous blog’s) We now know that we have a choice in how we respond instead of react. So now what? Well, the truth is, we all have moments of insecurity—moments where we really dread the unknown. Learning to live with uncertainty is the name of the game.
No matter what you are dealing with in life, whether it is trying to have a baby or build or save a company in a shaky economy, the outcome is uncertain, and how you deal with stress is what determines your ability to succeed. Regardless of how prepared you are, something always arises that will test your faith in your ability to rise above the challenge. It’s in this period of uncertainty that separates those who give up, with those who understand that this is a journey worth taking.
A Zen monk takes his student on a walk to the top of a mountain. The only thing the student is focused on is how high and insurmountable the mountain seems looming before him, and he becomes exhausted and discouraged and needs to stop and rest frequently. The master gently reminds him that a journey is made up of many steps. In order to reach the top, he must take one step at a time. The master teaches him to notice how his feet are touching the path, the sounds around him and to absorb himself in the full essence of each step. Before the student knows it he is at the top of the mountain and is surprised with how effortless it felt and how rich his experience was.
The infertility journey is much the same. It can be daunting, exhausting and discouraging if we only focus on the goal. So, how can you move effortlessly from fear and anxiety to insight and freedom?
During these moments, examine your feelings, which can lead you to a sense of comfort. One technique is simply paying attention to the sensations and the feelings that accompany the anxiety.
For instance, start to notice the impact the feelings have on your body. How rapid is your heart rate? Does the feeling have a color, or texture? What muscles are tightening in response? By observing, being curious and breathing into the feelings that accompany the fear, instead of being hijacked- you have an opportunity to be present and have compassion for yourself.
Every time you focus on your breath, each time you relax and listen to your feelings, you open yourself to the present and take a step forward on the path up the mountain. When you simply witness your feelings instead of reacting to them, you allow your life to unfold organically. Most importantly, you develop your capacity to be free and present during the uncertain and difficult days on the fertility journey.