Many individuals suffer from prolonged stress and daily anxiety. These states take a serious toll on mental, emotional, and physiological health. The part of the brain responsible for self-control degenerates, sleep is disrupted, motivation decreases, concentration is fragmented, angry outbursts increase, the immune system malfunctions, inflammation increases, fewer brain cells are made, relationships are strained, and aging accelerates.
People use many methods to cope with stress. Some methods are maladaptive, such as social withdrawal or self-medicating with alcohol. Life might be easier short term, but maladaptive coping mechanisms can cause more problems over time.
What can you do to reduce stress and lessen anxiety?
This series of articles will describe effective methods for reducing stress.
For many people, simply making the first appointment with a psychotherapist is helpful. It is a relief to know that there will be nonjudgmental, empathetic listening, and support on the road to change.
Some therapists teach stress reduction skills and coping methods. A simple technique that can be learned is diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing. Slow diaphragmatic breathing can disrupt the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. In addition, more oxygen is available to the brain, and lower amounts of stress hormones are released. Muscle tension softens, clear thinking is easier, and insight is enhanced.
Diaphragmatic breathing is much more than simply taking deep breaths. When performed correctly, your chest will not move. Instead, your stomach will move in and out with each breath. You can watch a baby or a sleeping dog naturally breathe this way. Small children use diaphragmatic breathing. Somehow, as we get older, we loose this ability.
The Breath of Fire
Early in the counseling process, I teach clients The Breath of Fire, a kind of diaphragmatic breathing. The Breath of Fire involves counting during inhaling and exhaling, and holding the breath briefly. This technique is especially useful for people who are anxious or worry about the same issues over and over. The Breath of Fire requires concentration and disrupts anxious thought processes.
Because it can be difficult to understand the importance of diaphragmatic breathing, I use biofeedback software to vividly illustrate the effects proper breathing. A small sensor is gently clipped to an ear lobe. It reads heart rate pace and heart rate variability patterns.
The data is transformed into colorful graphs and musical tones, providing immediate feedback to the client. Studies have shown 40% to 60% reduction in anger, irritability, anxiety, and depression with daily practice for four weeks.
The Importance of Practice
It is best to practice diaphragmatic breathing daily for at least two weeks, preferably four weeks, training the body and constructing new neural pathways, before using it to manage stress. It’s like you learn to flip a switch. You develop the ability to switch rapidly into a calmer state of mind where you are less reactive, more thoughtful, considerate, and deliberate in choices and actions.
The simple act of diaphragmatic breathing can be very empowering.
Instead of being controlled by your emotions, instead of reacting to fear, instead of trying to escape from anxiety, you are now choosing how to feel and act. You can now look at problems and think with more clarity, instead of feeling overwhelmed.
And you can do it anywhere!
In the midst of a crowded elevator, on your way to an important meeting, you can switch on diaphragmatic breathing. Before a medical appointment for a loved one, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing. While you are waiting for a test to begin, you can calm yourself and untangle your thoughts with diaphragmatic breathing. When your spouse or child is upset, you can stay grounded and make better decisions with the help of diaphragmatic breathing.
Personally, I practice diaphragmatic breathing as I drive to and from work. I arrive at work calm and focused. At work, diaphragmatic breathing keeps me grounded and present while working with clients. After work, thanks to diaphragmatic breathing, I go home without carrying problems with me, relaxed, and ready to engage with my family. While doing chores, diaphragmatic breathing keeps me from feeling overwhelmed and makes the tasks more enjoyable. During a massage, diaphragmatic breathing allows me to take in healing touch and release tension. During dental work, diaphragmatic breathing results in less pain and less need for pain medication.
The simple act of diaphragmatic breathing can be life changing! I highly recommend learning this method of managing stress.
Dr. Benyshek is a devoted psychotherapist and marriage counselor, a professional artist, and an internationally renowned researcher on contemporary artists as shamans.