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Just Breathe for Holiday Stress Management

Thanksgiving is but a distant memory, though Christmas and New Year’s are right around the corner. For many people, this time of year brings to mind lots of food and drink, presents, parties, and visits with family and friends. I can already smell the cookies baking in the kitchen and pine-scented everything as I write this. For some, however, the holidays are not a time of joy. They can bring back memories of loved ones who are missed or have passed, the chaos and commercialism of modern shopping, or simply loneliness. All of which can make this a time of crippling anxiety and depression.

While some extreme cases of anxiety and depression may warrant professional intervention or prescription medication, milder cases may benefit from talking with a friend or clergy, taking some quiet time to collect your thoughts, or maybe even a good workout to burn off some steam. One more often overlooked, technique for managing anxiety is breathing. I know; you already know how to breathe, or you wouldn’t be reading this article. What I am writing about are simple, specific techniques that have been proven to effectively calm you when you are stressed.

When we picture someone under duress or someone who is physically exerting themselves, we picture them in fight-or-flight mode, chest heaving and breathing heavily as their body gets ready to face whatever is coming. This is our natural response to extreme stress and a built-in survival mechanism. When faced with life-or-death situations, our ability to perceive stress is a good thing and may even save our lives. We are not, however, built to be in this state of high alert for very long. It is meant for the rare occasion that we need it to get out of trouble, and there is an abundance of evidence that being too stressed for too long leads to all kinds of damage to our systems.

So, what can we do? Just as stressful situations can raise our heart rate and rate of respiration, the opposite is also true. We can learn to slow our heart rates and breathing to de-stress. If you told me this when I was a teen, I would have thought you were crazy. As I mentioned in my earlier articles, I basically grew up in a powerlifting gym where yoga was considered a swear word, and if you were caught looking in the mirror for more than a second, you never heard the end of it. Someone teaching breathing techniques to relieve stress would not have lasted long.

Flash forward to middle age. Two health degrees and decades of experience, and I think something so simple as breath control may be one of the greatest discoveries, at least for me, in the last couple of millennia. In fact, I practice simple breathing techniques as part of my daily routine and have found them to be extremely effective for reducing stress and increasing mental focus, so much so that I would put it up there with exercise and nutrition as basic pillars for health.

Here are a few basic techniques that are easy to learn:

Deep breathing: The autonomic nervous system has several components, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls a person’s fight-or-flight response, whereas the parasympathetic nervous system controls a person’s rest-and-relax response. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system by allowing your body to deliver an increase of oxygen to the brain and also by signaling that it is OK to relax. Expert Dr. John Kennedy recommends focusing on long, controlled breaths with an emphasis exhalation to stimulate the vagus nerve, which causes a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure.

Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing: Many people have a habit of breathing from the chest by lifting their chest when they inhale. While this will keep you alive, it is somewhat inefficient. Conversely, diaphragmatic breathing calls for relaxation of the chest and an expansion of the belly to draw breath. Think of a sleeping infant. This technique allows for an increase in lung capacity and efficiency. Try lying flat with one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. The goal is to only allow the hand on your belly to rise. Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Allow your “abdomen” to fill with air, then slowly contract those muscles as you exhale. With a little practice, it will be easy to master.

Box breathing: This simple technique involves an inhale of 4 seconds, a hold for 4 seconds, an exhale of 4 seconds, then another hold for 4 seconds. Continue this pattern for 5 minutes or more.

Personally, my preferred method of choice is deep breathing with a 5-second inhale and a 5-second exhale in a tranquil spot. I began with 5 minutes and, with time, was able to quickly increase my time to 30 minutes. To be honest, I thought I would get bored, but I have learned that if I focus on my breathing by counting to 5 on the inhale/exhale the time flies. When I am distracted, I simply let stray thoughts float away. When I’m finished, I find that my stress has melted away, and my mental focus is much improved. No one should be intimidated by breathing exercises, and everyone can start with just a few minutes a day and work up from there.