Editor’s Note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
Stressful situations are a part of everyday life, but it can be a challenge managing the daily grind without feeling the heat. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or in an anxiety-inducing thought pattern, your body’s stress response naturally kicks in — breathing becomes rapid, your heart races, and blood pressure rises.
If you’re focused on the source of stress, you may be less conscious of the physiological impact, so you don’t take action to reverse it. This unawareness, unfortunately, leads to prolonged states of stress. Left unchecked, chronic stress can affect your health and relationships, and has been linked to serious conditions such as hypertension, anxiety disorders and addiction, according to the Yale Stress Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
The good news is that you can build in stress-relieving “breathing breaks” throughout the day to break the stress cycle and restore calm. Simply make it a point to step away from your daily activities for a few minutes every couple of hours and focus on your breathing.
If you’re old enough, you might remember decades ago — before the mountains of research on smoking’s harmful effects — when stepping outside to smoke was considered an acceptable work break. Why not institute breathing breaks instead?
Unlike smoke breaks, breathing breaks are actually good for you! And breathing is one of the most effective ways to manage stress because it leverages your own physiology and requires no special tools. In as little as 90 seconds, deep breathing stimulates a physiological relaxation response that inhibits stress hormone production, lowers blood pressure and decreases heart rate, according to research.
Try incorporating the breathing exercises below into your own breaks to relieve stress and restore calm. It’s important to inhale through your nose, if possible, but you can exhale out of your nose or mouth, based on your comfort level. Unless otherwise noted in the instructions, perform the breathing exercises for about eight to 10 breaths, which equates to anywhere from two to three minutes — perfect timing for a breathing break.
This is a great starter exercise for anyone new to breathing techniques. There are no special instructions aside from keeping your mind focused on your breathing. From any position, wherever you are, begin lengthening and deepening your breath. While you do so, focus all your attention on the sounds and sensations of your breathing. Feel the expansion and contraction of your rib cage. Direct all your senses to follow the path of air in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs and out again. Listen to the sound of your breath. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breathing, which is always happening in the present moment.
This exercise is aptly named because the four phases of each breath (inhale, pause, exhale, pause) are done at an even count, like the four even sides of a box. You can practice this at a variety of different breath lengths. Four is a popular count, but if you feel comfortable extending your breath to five or six, go for it.
Example of box breathing at a four-count:
Inhale for a count of four.
Pause, holding your breath for a count of four.
Exhale for a count of four.
Pause without breathing for a count of four.