Slow down: How Breathing Can Help Relax Your Mind and Body
Beth Pfitzenmaier, MS, LCAS, RYT-200
How can we slow down, conserve energy and reduce our stress hormones?
The answer is simple: breathing.
To understand how breathing can slow down your mind and body, here’s a little lesson on our Autonomic Nervous System.
Fight or Flight Response
Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
This SNS response provides a quick burst of energy to help get you to safety or to complete the task or activity at hand which leads to increased adrenaline and stress hormones, increased breath and heart rate, and decreased digestion and healing.
Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
This is the PNS relaxation or “rest and digest” response. It’s about slowing down, conserving energy, and restoring which leads to decreased adrenaline and stress hormones and decreased breath and heart rate. It also leads to increased energy to digestion, immune functioning, healing, and repairing.
The Relaxation Response leads to increased energy to digestion, immune functioning, healing, and repairing.
Both responses are important; we automatically move between both all day though sometimes we get “stuck” in one mode.
We may hit traffic on the way home from work which leads to agitation, impatience, and stress–this activates the “Fight or Flight” mode. We may still be in the stress response long after we get home, put on our comfy clothes and eat dinner. Using a breathing exercise can bring you towards balance by decreasing the stress response and calming the body and mind down.
Using a breathing exercise can bring you towards balance by decreasing the stress response and calming the body and mind down.
As you breathe, so you think.
Everything is connected—the thoughts you think are related to the feelings you have and the sensations in your body. Slowing down your breathing helps to slow down your mind and body.
Breathing Exercise Tips
Even a few minutes of Steady Breathing does wonders to regulate your system.
- These breathing exercises will be done in and out through the nose. Why? Nose breathing in and out through the mouth can activate the stress response.
- Sit or be in a comfortable position; your eyes can be open or closed.
- You may want to start with a couple minutes of Steady Breathing and then do one more exercise in your breathing session. Please do not do more than this in one sitting, as it can be jarring for your nervous system.
- It may be helpful to check in with yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prior to breathing intentionally and then check in again with yourself afterwards to notice what you notice.
Your thoughts are related to the feelings you have and the sensations in your body. Slowing down your breathing helps to slow down your mind and body.
1. Steady Breathing
This is the foundation for all the rest of the breathing exercises.
- Allow your inhale and exhale to be equal in length, strength, sound, and effort; allow your breath to be deep, even, smooth, seamless, and silent
- Find a comfortable seat and breathe this way through your nose with eyes open or closed for 1-3 minutes.
- To make this extra relaxing, calming, or soothing, breathe into your belly so it rises on the inhale and softens on the exhale.
- This is the foundation for all the rest of the breathing exercises.
2. Square Breathing
- Your breath will make up the sides of the square. You may want to start with a 3 count for all four sides of the square. For example, you will breathe in for 3, hold for 3, breathe out for 3, and hold for 3. If a shorter or longer count feels better, do that.
- If the holds make you panic or uncomfortable you can shorten them so it may look like 3-1-3-1. Or, take them out completely and practice your steady breathing.
3. Longer Inhale
Do this when you are experiencing low energy (tired, sad, sluggish, lazy) and want to have a little more energy.
- Do this when you are experiencing low energy (tired, sad, sluggish, lazy) and want to have a little more energy. This can be helpful as you are waking up and getting ready for your day or in the afternoon when you’re starting to get tired and still have tasks to complete.
- Make your inhale up to twice as long as your exhale. Breathe in for 6 and out for 3. If making the inhale twice as long is not comfortable, make it 1-2 counts longer so maybe in for 4 or 5 and out for 3. As you practice you may find that you can make the inhale longer. Find a count that works for you.
4. Longer Exhale
Do this when you are experiencing high energy (anxious, stressed, agitated, alert) and want to have a little less energy.
- Do this when you are experiencing high energy (anxious, stressed, agitated, alert) and want to have a little less energy. This is a helpful way to breathe when you are laying in bed and easing yourself towards sleep or if you’re about to have a difficult conversation with someone.
- Make your exhale up to twice as long as your inhale. Maybe breathe in for 3 and out for 6; or if this is uncomfortable, breathe in for 3 and out for 4 or 5. Find a count that works for you.
5. Alternate Nostril
- This breath has a lovely way of balancing out your energy, your body, and your mind as it moves you towards your steady center.
- Your left hand will rest in your lap and you’ll use your right hand for this exercise. Fold your right pointer and middle finger in towards your palm and rest your thumb on your right nostril and your ring finger on your left nostril. Your pinky just hangs out and doesn’t have a job to do for this exercise. If folding your first two fingers in is not comfortable you can rest them between your eyebrows. Alternate which nostril you are breathing through by using your thumb and ring finger on your nostrils.
- Start off by gently closing off your right nostril with your thumb and breathe in through your left only. Close off your left and open your right and breathe out through your right. Breathe in through your right and close it off, open your left and breathe out. That’s one round. You’ll know you’ve ended the round when you exhale through your left. Keep going for 5-7 more rounds.
- This is a good breath to do when you are feeling scattered, overwhelmed, and stressed; when stuck and sluggish, when your mind is racing and you’re exhausted. You can use this any time you’re feeling off center.
This is a good breath to do when you are feeling scattered, overwhelmed, and stressed; when stuck and sluggish, when your mind is racing and you’re exhausted.
The more you try these out, the more familiar you’ll get with how they affect you and the changes in body and mind they bring about.
With careful observation of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations you’ll be able to know exactly which breathing exercise is the right one for the current situation.
I value authenticity, courage, growth, and connection. I am the Program Director of the Adult Outpatient Services and use my values on a daily basis as I work alongside others to ensure we are providing the best care possible. I recently completed yoga teacher training and am now a certified yoga teacher. I look forward to being able to more fully incorporate yoga into my work with the people I serve.