Do you find yourself frequently worrying about the future, ruminating about past events, or simply having a hard time quieting your mind? Using a simple breathing practice for relaxation might help calm your overactive mind. Breathing practices have been used for thousands of years and have gained much popularity lately. They are easy to practice, free of charge, and don’t have negative side-effects.
When we are stressed, either because of difficult circumstances, or because of our stressful thoughts, our nervous system gets ready for action. You may have heard of the “fight/flight response”. When our brain perceives danger, the body gets ready to either fight or run away from the threat. This is a great nervous system survival response for short term stressors and when we need to act quickly. An example of this is when a car comes swerving into our lane on the freeway and is about to collide with our car. We quickly jerk our steering wheel, maybe honk the horn, and once the situation is over, we might feel our muscles tighten, feel our heart beat fast, and our breath may be shallow and rapid. After a few minutes however, these sensations resolve and the body is typically calm again. If our nervous system experiences chronic stress, either because of a difficult situation or our constant worry thoughts, the same response happens, only now it doesn’t just ease up. The result can be chronically tense muscles, faster heart beat, fast and shallow breathing, digestive problems, and insomnia, just to name only a few!
The breath is an interesting function of the body as it typically (thankfully!) happens automatically, but we can also control it --for example to energize or calm our system. By becoming mindful of our breathing, purposely breathing in a calm way, and by breathing out a little slower than our inbreath, we can calm our nervous system and lessen the “fight or flight” response and instead move the nervous system to a calmer state called the “rest/restore” response. The result is relaxation of the body and a calmer mind. Some of this happens immediately, but with regular practice, the results are even more significant.
Once you have practiced this technique a few times you can try a “mantra” practice, which means you use a word or short phrase to keep your mind focused on the breathing practice. For example: as you breathe in you might mentally say, “I am”, and as you slowly breathe out say “calm”, and you repeat this with each breath.
This is a simple practice that can be used pretty much anytime and anywhere. Although we tend to initially practice sitting or lying down, it can be done in standing as well. So the next time you find yourself in a doctor’s waiting room, or in line at the grocery store, instead of getting frustrated about the wait, you might use the time as an opportunity to practice some relaxed breathing and de-stress your nervous system instead.