Breathe!

A couple of weeks ago I decided to take some “self-care” time off and head out of town on a mini-vacation.  In hindsight I probably should have headed to the sun and sand (even if it was only for four days!) but I had been wanting to visit Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan for a long time so that was my destination of choice.  The day I left I was in great spirits.  The drive from London to Windsor is an easy one if you don’t mind driving with lots of trucks.  So the first two hours driving were a breeze.

Then I hit Detroit and was reminded of one of the causes of stress and anxiety in my life – driving on big city freeways.  This is something I don’t do often, but whenever I do I can almost guarantee that my body will start to exhibit some of the classic signs of stress- tight muscles, sweating, and increased blood pressure to name just a few.  It is never a pleasant time.

While I was driving along, trying to find my way, I found myself desperately trying to think of ways to stay calm, cool and collected.  One of the things I’ve been taught is to, first of all, listen to my body because it will give me clues.  And what I found out surprised me.  I discovered that I was holding my breath.  This is not a good thing.  In this sort of situation, where cars were zipping by me at over 100 km per hour, my brain needed all the oxygen it could get.  Holding my breath wasn’t helping any!

According to Anxietycentre.com, we often hold our breath when we are feeling stressed or anxious.  This then leads to hyperventilation which decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood and reduces the amount of oxygen we take in with each breath.  We always want to maintain a small amount of carbon dioxide in our blood to help regulate our breathing.  A lack of it leads to lightheadness and dizziness, and can make us more prone to feeling stressed.  And this was something I definitely did not need while driving on a busy freeway!

So what can you do if you find ourself in a stressful situation like I was, and want to stay calm?  Here are a few tips:

1)  Be aware of how you are breathing.  Holding your breath or breathing shallowly from your upper chest can both lead to hyperventilation.  So when you find yourself beginning to feel stressed, check to see where you are breathing from (or if you are even breathing at all!).  If you are breathing from your diaphragm (you can feel your abdomen move in and out with each breath), that is great.  But if you are breathing from your upper chest you will want to take action as it is probably contributing to increasing your stress level.

2) Take a few deep breaths.  Controlled deep breathing has a calming effect by stimulating the Parasympathetic Nervous System.  This, in turn, turns off the stress response and causes your body to start to rest.  This is also an exercise you can do anywhere – sitting at your desk at work, waiting in line at the bank or, like me, sitting in traffic on a freeway! It is also a great way to relax your body so you can fall asleep.

  1. Sitting up straight (or lying down) , exhale completely  through your mouth.
  2. Placing your hands on your stomach, just above your waist, breathe in slowly through your nose, pushing your hands out with your stomach. This ensures that you are breathing deeply.  Once you have had practice and feel comfortable with the technique, you can place your hands wherever feels comfortable for you.
  3. Hold your breath to a count of two to five, or whatever you can handle.
  4. Slowly and steadily breathe out through your mouth, feeling your hands move back in as you slowly contract your stomach, until most of the air is out (usually a second or two longer than it took you to inhale)*
  5. Repeat 2 to 3 times.

3)  Get out in the fresh air every chance you have.  Many of the new construction and renovation techniques that we now use are great for making our homes and the buildings we work in more energy efficient, but they can lead to poor air quality.  Taking the time to zip outside for a quick 5 or 10 minute break will not only allow you to take some deep breaths of fresh air, but also get your daily dose of Vitamin D – a vitamin that all of us living in the northern hemisphere often get too little of.

So what are the benefits of taking the time to breathe?  Well, once I started to breathe more deeply, and opened my car window so that I got a good dose of fresh air, I felt calmer and “caught my second wind”.  I also felt more alert which made me better able to handle anything that was thrown in my way (literally!)

My challenge for you this week is to become more aware of how you are breathing.  Are you breathing deeply from your diaphragm or shallowly from your upper chest?  Then, when you find yourself beginning to tense up, try taking a few deep breaths and feel what happens.  Enjoy the wonders of breathing!

*Deep breathing exercise courtesy of www.stress-relief-exercises.com