Just Breathe: Mindfulness for Stress-Reduction

Mindfulness Blitz Conditioning“Just breathe.” Easy enough, right? Chances are you have heard this suggestion from someone trying to help you calm down if you are stressed out. Perhaps you have seen a version of this phrase tattooed on a celebrity, reminding them to stay focused. If breathing – something we do automatically – is the key to calming down, de-stressing, re-focusing, relaxing, why would we need a reminder to do it?
Have you ever noticed the common tendency to hold your breath when physically straining or exerting yourself? For example, it seems like we are always being reminded to breathe when lifting weights or holding a challenging stretch. Despite our breath being the force that keeps us alive, we often underestimate how important it is to monitor. In our determination, we may even try to hold our breath to gain leverage to help us push ourselves further. Turns out, however, that when we are aware of the strain or stress on our body and focus our breath into the area in distress, we can allow ourselves to soften, go deeper, and actually strengthen.

Similar to physical strain, a common automatic reaction to emotional strain and stress is to feel breathless or like the “wind was knocked out” of you. The sensation of not being able to breathe is scary, so we might gasp for air, taking short shallow breaths. You probably know where this is going… hyperventilation, more anxiety, and maybe panic. In our best efforts at self-preservation, we are unwittingly making the situation worse. So, someone might remind you “just breathe” or “take deeeeeep breaths.” It just can’t be that simple right? Moreover, it might be annoying to hear this sage advice in the throes of a stressful situation. “I’m trying to breathe!”
In fact, in my practice as a registered clinical psychologist, focusing on the breath while acknowledging stressful thoughts and feelings is a foundational coping strategy I teach people.

How does focusing on the breath actually help? The human body is designed to try to protect itself when faced with a perceived danger or stress (imagine being chased by a tiger). Our brains perceive the threat and sends signals to our adrenal glands to unleash hormones that help us fight or run; this phenomenon is known as the “fight or flight” response. We feel our pulse and breath quicken, blood pressure elevates, and muscles tense. These hormones – adrenalin and cortisol – are meant to give us the extra energy to survive when threatened and then resume to balanced baseline levels when the threat has passed. However, our brains can’t tell the difference between a ferocious tiger and, say, your demanding boss, so if the brain perceives ongoing life stressors to mean that you are constantly under attack, the fight or flight response may remain activated long-term. This state of chronic stress and hormone overload wears down our bodies both physical and mentally, putting us at risk for problems such as heart disease, digestive issues, sleep disturbance, weight gain, anxiety, depression – to name just a few. Research has provided strong evidence that focusing attention on taking slow, deep breaths can have a calming, relaxing effect on the mind and on the body, by lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rate. Essentially, “just breathing” can help get you out of the fight or flight response and restore your body to resting balance.

So what exactly is mindfulness? Mindfulness seems to be a buzz word these days with the increasing popularity of yoga and meditative practices in modern society. However, many people are not exactly sure what mindfulness is – and what it is not. The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, and most of us can think of examples of doing something “mindlessly.” For example, have you ever had the experience of driving somewhere but when you get to your destination you can’t recall the actual drive? Or how about sitting down to watch your favourite TV show with a bag of potato chips only to – shockingly – find you’ve eaten the whole bag by the end of the show, thinking to yourself, “who ate all my chips!?” Basically, mindlessness is not paying attention to what you’re doing. Given this definition, we can think about mindfulness as simply directing our attention to what is going on around us and what we are doing in the present moment.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. first created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program and founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In addition to a strong and ever-growing body of scientific evidence supporting mindfulness skills as effective for managing stress and a range of stress-related medical conditions, I have personally collected data from my own clients that experience reduction in chronic stress and anxiety symptoms while living better quality lives, since starting to practice mindfulness. Common, nearly automatic, attempts at coping with stress are to (1) try to “figure things out” or think our way out of it, and/or (2) try not to think about it and distract ourselves. The first option can lead to worry or obsessing, and the second option can lead to a build- up of un-addressed stress that eventually boils over. Just because we aren’t looking at it, doesn’t mean it’s not there anymore. So, ironically – and cruelly – often our most valiant efforts to cope and calm down in the short-term lead to more stress long-term!

But isn’t mindful focus on our breathing just another form of distraction? The difference between distracting ourselves, or trying to forget about stress, and being mindful of the present moment is that, when we are mindful, we are acknowledging our feelings of stress in the moment and expanding our awareness to include other aspects of the present moment. We are not fighting with or trying to ignore the stress, we are just not focusing our entire attention and energy on it. We are defusing our focus, and thereby reducing the power the stress has over us. The stress is just one part of our experience, not our whole experience. Our breath is the simplest, most accessible part of our here-and-now experience on which we can focus our attention. Each breath represents the present moment. Therefore, we not only lower our pulse and blood pressure, relax our muscles, but we also get unstuck from our inner emotions and thoughts and become grounded back in our lives.

The next time you notice yourself feeling stress, try taking 10 deep, slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can keep your eyes open with a soft, unfocused gaze or close them. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath filling your lungs with oxygen, your belly rising, and your belly falling as you slowly exhale all the air back out. Silently count to yourself, and try to make your inhales and exhales equal. During this mindfulness exercise, take note of any thoughts that come up, and feelings and sensations you experience. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings and return your focus back on the breath. No need to feel frustrated with your mind – it’s perfectly natural and expected that you’re mind will interrupt you. After 10 breaths, expand your awareness to the world around you and engage your other senses. What do you see? What do you hear? Smell? Touch? Taste? You might also intentionally practice mindful breathing proactively by checking in with yourself a few times a day, and re-grounding yourself in the present with your breath. A helpful tool I recommend to my clients to remind them to practice mindfulness throughout the day is a mindfulness app available on smart phones and tablets for free or little money. A good free app is called “mindfulness bell.”

And remember… just breathe.

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