To Cope With Chronic Stress, Tune Into Your Breathing
How to practice this effective mindfulness meditation and why it works.
Posted Nov 06, 2020
Does life seem over-the-top stressful these days? Is there too much suspense? Too much pressure? Too many changes? Too many hurdles? Too much dread?
If you’re experiencing temporary stressors—such as having to work overtime this week, running late for an appointment, or your partner or kid having a stomach bug for a couple of days—stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are being released into your bloodstream. This stress reaction can be helpful because it increases your alertness and energy to do what needs to be done, whether you need to keep your nose to the grindstone, move quickly, take on more responsibilities, or clean up more messes. With temporary stressors, as your stress load recedes, your brain and body can relax again.
But chronic stress is another matter. If you are constantly overworked, sleep-deprived, moving too quickly, or cleaning up too many messes, your bloodstream is perpetually infused with stress hormones. After a while, instead of jumping into action, you become drained of energy and motivation. Your reserves are depleted, and you’re forced to make do with less and less. You become fatigued and burned out and less resilient.
One obvious solution is to reduce and remove what’s stressful in your life. But sometimes, that’s not possible. When the stressors are systemic or an unavoidable part of your life, you have no choice but to deal with them. So now what?
Tune into your breathing.
Focusing on your breath may seem trivial or even silly. Most of us take breathing for granted, mostly because it’s just something we do automatically, day in and day out. But research on mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques shows that tuning into your breathing is one of the most effective practices for restoring calm to your brain and body.
To get started, lie down or recline comfortably. Relax, close your eyes, place your hand on your belly, and simply continue to breathe normally. As you breathe in, notice that your belly rises or expands. This happens because your diaphragm, which is a sheet of muscle attached along the lower edges of your rib cage, contracts and pushes down on your belly and its internal organs, making your belly rise or expand, but also creating negative pressure in your chest, which makes your lungs fill with air. After you inhale, your diaphragm relaxes and returns to its position, your belly falls or recedes, and positive pressure in your chest makes your lungs exhale the air.
Inhale, and your belly rises. Exhale, and your belly falls. This type of breathing is called “diaphragmatic breathing.”
If your chest is expanding instead of your belly, this is called “chest breathing” and tends to be rapid, shallow, and anxiety-provoking, unlike diaphragmatic breathing, which is deeper and more relaxing. Perhaps you’re forcing your breath. Don’t force it—just let your breathing happen naturally and see if it settles into your belly.
If your breath doesn’t settle into your belly, chest breathing may be a sign that you’re holding chronic tension in your body. Learning to relax into diaphragmatic breathing can take practice, but you’ll boost your ability to restore calm. If you are suffering from traumatic stress and find it too difficult or distressing to focus on your breath, belly, or body, you may first require a brain-based treatment to benefit from tuning into your breathing.
If you are belly breathing, your next step is to simply focus on it. Inhale, and your belly rises. Exhale, and your belly falls. You might also notice the feeling of air moving through your nostrils or your diaphragm contracting and relaxing. Scan your body and notice other sensations associated with your breath.
Don’t think about your breathing—simply be aware of it by focusing your attention on the sensations of how breathing feels in your body. The idea is to relax your body and quiet your mind, rather than giving it another chore to do.
If your attention wanders away from your breathing, this is not a failure—it’s simply another opportunity to be aware of your thoughts and gently return your focus to your breathing. And the more times you practice this mindful, meditative skill, the better you’ll get at returning your focus to your breathing and resting it there. Your goal is practice, not perfection. That's why mindfulness is called "a practice."
How does tuning into your breathing restore calm?
When you bring your awareness to your breath at your belly, your body relaxes, and your mind drops the busy or stressful thoughts and gets quiet. A good analogy is to think about being on an ocean with high winds. When you are stressed, it’s as if you’re fighting to catch your breath while treading the choppy waves on the surface of a stormy sea. But when you put on scuba gear and relax your body, you can drop down under the waves, where you are out of the storm and submerged in quiet, calm waters, with only the soothing sound of your breath. Your stress naturally subsides as you are infused with tranquility. Again, if you bob up to the turbulent surface, take note and then return to the calm down under.
What are the emotional benefits of cultivating calm?
Whenever you’re stressed out, your brain is in a reactive mode, where you are more likely to lose perspective, feel pessimistic, fearful, irritable, or anxious, and be unable to solve problems. Stress also affects your relationships, making you more critical of others, assuming bad intentions, and feeling attacked and defensive. In contrast, when you can cultivate calm, you put your brain into a creative mode, where you are more likely to:
- Keep a healthy perspective on situations
- Feel optimistic
- Find solutions
- Invite social support, as you see others as potentially collaborative and doing the best they can.
In short, when you’re stressed, your thoughts are more destructive and make you feel miserable; when you’re calm, your thoughts are more constructive, and the quality of your life is much improved. Even if your stressors remain unchanged, you've changed how you deal with the stress.
When is a good time to tune into your breathing?
- When you’re trying to sleep: If sleep eludes you because your mind is racing, practice focusing on your breath to quiet your mind and drift off.
- When you’re waking up: Instead of hitting the ground running, spend a few minutes where you practice tuning into your breathing, and start your day with a sense of calm.
- When you need a break: Get into a comfortable, balanced, open, dignified (meaning straight spine when sitting or standing) position, rest your hand on your belly, and give yourself a few minutes where your only task is to practice tuning into your breathing.
- When you need a boost: Focus on taking a few slow, deep breaths before you enter the room, start the meeting, or make the phone call.
- When you find yourself feeling irritated, anxious, or depressed: Grant yourself a time-out, so you can anchor your awareness to your breath.
- When you want to get into the habit of doing more self-care: For one week, take 15 minutes a day to tune into your breathing, and note the effect on your well-being.
When you focus on your breath, you tap into an inner well of calm that is always there and accessible to you. Try it and see what happens.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books, 2013.
Shamash Alidina. The Mindful Way Through Stress: The Proven 8-Week Path to Health, Happiness, and Well-Being. The Guilford Press 2015.
Linda Graham. How Tuning Into Your Body Can Make You More Resilient: By balancing our physiology and nervous system, body-based practices help us through hard times. Mindful.com, October 7, 2018.
Eva Holland. In a Crisis, We Can Learn From Trauma Therapy: Emotional resilience can be deliberately cultivated, but it takes work. New York Times, June 15, 2020.
Julia Colwell. The Relationship Ride: A Usable, Unusual Transformative Guide. Integrity Arts Press, 2011.