Are you a worrier? Even when things are just fine, do anxious thoughts buzz around your brain like a swarm of nervous bees?
We can easily be swept away from the moment in stress-inducing situations, or even day-to-day life. Especially so if your default setting at the first sign of any mild discomfort goes from: ‘things are okay’ to: ‘OH GOOD LORD, THE WORLD IS ENDING’ in 0.5 seconds.
The good news is, in times of strife (stress, overthinking, loss of focus or clarity, you name it) you have a built-in foundational skill to help you out. A skill you’ve been mastering since the day you were plonked on the planet.
My friend, it’s all in your breath: nature’s courier of calm.
Here are some easy-peasy exercises to help that busy brain of yours and, hopefully, improve your emotional and even physical well-being. If you’re new to any of these, it’s best to practise when anxiety levels are low initially. Doing so allows you to fully engage with the method and take in its effects. Plus let’s face it: if you’re stressed, ideally you don’t want to be frantically recounting how to do breathing stuff you read on the internet.
Now. Take a deep breath, and read on…
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Want to lessen your stress response? Well, studies show practising alternate nostril breathing is a great way to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system (the nifty network of nerves which calms you down after stuff has gotten stressful or dangerous).
This technique has also been credited for lowering heart rate and blood pressure, so it's a great way to help you decompress.
Give it a try using the below steps or check out this video:
How to perform alternate nostril breathing
- Keep the thumb and little finger of your right hand extended, curling your middle three fingers into your palm. Take a deep breath in and out before you start.
- With your thumb, block your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- Now cover your left nostril with your little finger (remove your thumb from the other nostril) and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale through your right nostril.
- Block your right nostril again with your thumb, exhale through the left.
- Inhale through your left nostril, block it with your little finger.
- Exhale through your right nostril.
- Repeat for 10 cycles of the above.
Feel a little lightheaded? Release both nostrils and resume your normal breath for a few seconds.
Another that’s great for grounding when stressed or nervous. The trick to Triangle Breath is to follow the outline of you guessed it: a triangle in your mind when practising.
Sit or stand up tall, relax those shoulders, watch this video or give these steps a try.
How to perform triangular breathing
- Inhale deeply through your nose for 3 seconds. Move up the first side of that triangle in your head as you do so.
- Hold your breath for 3 seconds (the second side of the triangle)
- Finally, exhale through your nose for a count of 3, cruising down the home straight of that third triangle side.
Repeat the cycle for 3 to 5 ‘triangles’ and hopefully, you should feel calmer and clearer in that glorious head of yours.
Okay, this one’s a bit different.
Rather than winding us down, this one’s there when you need a bit of oomph. Got a task that you just can’t seem to fire up any enthusiasm to do? Sat overthinking on the sofa? Need clarity and focus? If so, try a bit of ‘armpit breathing’.
Don’t fret, it won't be necessary to breathe near anyone’s armpits.
It simply involves standing or sitting up tall, lifting your arms to shoulder height or above the head (thus revealing those armpits) and taking 3-5 deep, deliberate breaths.
You might look a little bizarre but it’s been suggested that breathing like this, upright and with purpose, can increase oxygen intake by expanding the lungs.
Increased oxygen = more energised and focused as a result. Winner.
Often practised in yoga classes, the Lion’s Breath breathing method is credited for energising the body and mind as well as releasing pent-up emotion.
Yogi’s also say it helps to open our throat chakra, which in turn can help with communication and speaking our mind. One to try if you’re trying to find the courage to ask for that well-deserved pay rise, then.
However one would advise to practise Lion’s Breath before, rather than during, any important business meeting. The reason? It involves sticking your tongue out wide whilst simultaneously trying to gaze at the middle of your forehead (your third eye), which may be mildly alarming for others to witness if not forewarned.
Have a go:
How to do Lion’s Breath
- Sit comfortably on a chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Spread your fingers on your knees as wide as possible and lean slightly forward.
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Open your mouth wide, stick your tongue out, trying to stretch it down toward your chin.
- Breathe out forcefully, making a ‘haaaaaaa’ sound.
- Breathe in and out normally for a couple of rounds of breath.
- Repeat Lion’s Breath 5-7 times, then return to your normal breath and breathe deeply for one or two minutes.
Did you know that when you yawn, all tension is released from your body?
This wonderful video highlights some easy tricks to ease anxiety and stress in the body, including the humble yawn. Now, I’m obviously not going to include a ‘how-to’ for this simple exercise, but I can certainly offer a ‘when-to.
If you’re about to partake in an activity that fills you with fear, anxiety or nerves: try faking a big, exaggerated yawn. Some athletes swear by it before heading out onto the track or field.
Performers have been known to yawn before the curtain rises at big shows.
Despite many studies, scientists and psychologists still aren’t exactly sure of the yawn’s role when it comes to stress. It remains a pretty mysterious human behaviour. However, one theory is a possible link to thermoregulation and keeping the brain at the temperature it should be.
We’ve all heard the term ‘hot-headed’, and the brain does NOT like to be hot, as it can affect our memory or ability to perform tasks efficiently. Yawning may help to combat that, as well as triggering your vagus nerve, which is the one which assists us in finding calm and composure.
The tips in this article are designed for the times when you feel strong enough to manage your mental health and tackle issues such as anxiety or stress alone.
However, if being in your brain is a little too busy and everything is feeling just a little too overwhelming, do consider reaching out for help. That might be via family, friends, a trained therapist or even your doctor.
Take a deep breath, my friend. You got this!