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Reducing Stress Through Conscious Breathing

We may not be able to control much right now, but we can control our breath!

Our world, and life as we know it is undergoing massive change; bringing with it a range of different stressors for people. Some people are thriving in this new found drive to perform, while others are overwhelmed by the situations they are facing day to day - and for good reason. And this is the great paradox of stress.

Chronic or repeated stress can do more than make us feel a bit anxious; it can lead to physical illness. At a time when we need to stay as healthy as possible, it's worth noting that stress can suppress the immune system, dry out the digestive tract; which in turn can lead to irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis. Many of us will also be familiar with impaired memory, severe anxiety and disturbed sleep. We now know that long-term stress can shorten telomeres which accelerates cellular ageing.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, wrote Dying for a Paycheck where he explains how stress from long work hours, work-family conflict and lack of good health insurance are killing people.

On the other hand, we rely on stress to give us vitality and enthusiasm for reaching our goals. Without stress, we wouldn't have the courage and enthusiasm to race our best race at an international competition, to act on stage in a major show, to push beyond our comfort zone or even leave the house.

In short, we need a certain level of stress to stay engaged in our work moment to moment. Positive stressors might include:

  • resistance training,

  • being promoted at work, and

  • taking classes or learning a new hobby.

The problem arises when we lose perspective in our lives and succumb to illusions of the mind based on the situation we find ourselves in and the choices we make. For some people it can be akin to the boiling frog syndrome where circumstances shift so subtly that it's difficult to know when the stress that was driving them positively becomes chronic and overwhelming. Examples of stressors that lead to problems include:

  • Excessive job demands,

  • Job insecurity,

  • Conflicts with teammates and supervisors,

  • Inadequate authority necessary to carry out tasks, and

  • Lack of training necessary to do the job.

"Our goal isn't a life without stress," Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. "The idea is to have the right amount of stress." That means stressors that are short-lived and manageable. (Singer, T., 2012)

What we know from all the research on stress is that negative stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS); and the extent to which that system and all its impacts remains activated is largely dependent on how we choose to respond to the situation. The problem is, there is no single tipping point for stress and each person is impacted depending upon a range of factors such as our personal history and possibly even genetic makeup.

One person views a stressful situation as a problem to be solved, whereas another sees the situation as a threat. Since our perceptions are drawn from our individual frames of reference and our experiences, it can be difficult - but not impossible - to shift our responses to stressors. A person facing sever anxiety or stress may feel that they can't think, as a result of the physiological response that stress invokes - fight, flight or freeze.

What does breathwork have to do with stress reduction?

Science has now proven that breathing, once viewed as a purely autonomic process, can be both voluntary and involuntary. You can focus on your breathing and create conscious changes in your rhythm; or you can breathe without much thought. Since breathing is a primary survival function, when you allow the primitive part of your brain to control your breathing, your rhythm of breathing will change according to your emotions, thoughts and feelings.

In simple terms, breathing unconsciously means that it will change according to our circumstances. Breathing is a habit for the vast majority of us - and like any unconscious habit, there are positives and negatives.

When you bring awareness to your breath, you stimulate the cerebral cortex, which is the largest region of the cerebrum in mammals and plays a key role in memory, attention, perception, cognition, awareness, thought, language and consciousness. By learning new breathing techniques and making those techniques part of your daily practice you are able to control your breath and, therefore, bring more control to how you respond to the situations around you.

Where the mind goes, the breath follows

It's important to remember that when you experience anxiety, fear or anger your breathing (and your heart rate) becomes erratic. The physiological imprints of anger can stay in your system for hours. When you experience the opposite states such as joy, passion, and love, your breathing becomes smoother, consistent and rhythmical which brings your heartbeat into a regular rhythm. This regular, rhythmical state is called 'coherence' by the HeartMath Institute.

You can create heart coherence by changing your attention to creating a more positive intention by focusing on gratitude, forgiveness, or a scene of success rather than failure. By bringing your attention to your breath and breathing more consciously, you can change the quality of your emotions and heart rhythms.

Is there an optimum breathing rate for managing stress?

The short answer is, YES!

The longer answer is that it depends on what you'd like to achieve (as with anything in life). Different breathing techniques will bring you into different states and the three below will help you to shift out of fear, anxiety and stress into more positive, harmonious states:

  1. Heart Coherence: Research shows that that HRV is increased most by breathing at a rate of 5 or 6 breaths per minute (5 seconds in, 5 out or 5:5) with an equal I:E (inhale:exhale) ratio. However, coherence still occurs with any ratio as long as you breathe rhythmically. HeartMath Institute has invested heavily in researching the impact of HRV on the body. What we now know is that creating heart coherence has a positive impact on resilience, mood regulation and state of mind.

  2. Flow States: Flow is when you are fully immersed and focused and engaged in an activity - we mostly know it as 'being in the zone'. One of the techniques used by the military to accelerate entry into flow state is box breathing. This technique has 4 phases which are all practiced for en equal period. The four phases are: * Inhale * Hold * Exhale * Hold This simple technique can be used for 5-10 minutes to bring back a sense of calm and equilibrium and help prepare you to enter a flow state.

  3. Rest & Digest: To activate rest and digest the optimum ratio of I:E is 0.5, meaning that the exhalation should be twice as long as the inhalation. This extended inhalation helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for rest and relaxation.

Summing it up

We all know that stress is a major problem in the workplace and successful leaders recognise that continuously pushing a team to work harder is not going to deliver the most effective results in today's work environment.

Teams need to make a conscious choice about when to turn up the dial when necessary to meet important deadlines and solve complex challenges. Individuals also need to manage their own reactions and stress responses in today's workplace.

Using conscious breathing techniques is the simplest, fastest and most cost-effective way to thrive during uncertainty; deal with complex issues, create space for problem solving and be more resilient to day to day corporate life. The techniques mentioned will help team members take care of their well being and perform better.

Tim Snell is a Coach, Consultant and Licensed Breathwork Instructor. He specialises in helping individuals to create a legacy they want to live right now; and helping companies play a bigger game. He incorporates breathwork and universal wisdom into his work to deliver transformational change.

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