Breathing Out Stress

Breathing is automatic. We don’t have to think about it. Right? Yes, but the more I learn about it, the more I am convinced that conscious breathing is a powerful tool. There are different ways of breathing and, if you use the right methods, you can reap a terrific health bonus. Breathing techniques are part of my regular meditation practice but I can incorporate them into daily life to great effect as well. This is what I would like to share with you.

The conscious, active process of breathing is well known to be beneficial in the inhalation phase – “drawing a deep breath” slows down the heart rate, reduces blood pressure, relaxes the muscles and nourishes the body. However, I would like to focus on the less-publicised exhalation phase, which is often thought of passively and, therefore, gets less attention. What is important here is to control the flow so as to exhale all the residual breath, which is key to allowing the body to let go of stress and making room for the next inhalation to be deeper.  A strong outbreath also has the power to expel thoughts around anxiety, stress and worry, shifting them out of the body instead of keeping them stuck inside.  It is like having a spring clean and getting rid of stuff we don’t need.

“By using the outbreath to expel what we no longer want, we are then better able to welcome something new” Jasmine Marie (Founder of Black Girls Breathing)

So what is the science behind this? Slow deep breaths – and exhalations in particular – trigger the vagus nervous system in the body.  This nerve runs from the brain stem down to the abdomen via the colon, connecting to the middle ear, vocal cords, heart, lungs and intestines along the way.  It is the longest and most complicated of the cranial nerves.  And it is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the body’s ‘rest and digest’ which when triggered helps us to calm down, feel better and think more rationally.

A popular and easy practice for releasing stagnant air in the lungs and calming the nerves is the 4-7-8 breathing meditation originally introduced by Dr Andrew Well.   As well as being useful for when you are feeling stressed it can help those that have difficulty falling asleep.  The 4-7-8 stands for:  you inhale for a count of four; then hold your breath for a count of seven and then exhale for a count of eight – then repeat three times.  Do this twice a day.

Incidentally, there are other ways to stimulate your vagus nerve: gently massage your face and neck, smile, laugh and be kind. Good for you and good for those you meet!