O2 for Stress Relief

As I write this article, my family is preparing for our first family vacation in years and I’m looking ahead at what’s in store. My husband and I, with our four children, will be spending ten hours on the road in a tightly packed minivan. Then after several days of visiting and fun, we get to do it all over again. Somehow, I see some added stress in my future.

We are planning ways to bypass the usual car trip dilemmas. We’ve laid out the route to our destination, scheduling rest stops along the way. We have activities to keep the little ones occupied and have explained to the older ones that we will be in charge of the radio station choices along the way. We’ll carry a cooler stocked with drinks and snacks. All in all, I think we’re prepared, but the fact that there will be some jangling nerves is inevitable.

What we really need is a coping strategy for stress. Something that can be done on the run, with limited space, that doesn’t require any extra packing. How will we calm ourselves when the whining, complaining and fighting break out?

Breathe.

When you are in a stressful situation, you may notice that you hold your breath or breathe more quickly than normal. Both are natural, involuntary responses to stress that add to its harmful effects.

Fortunately, you can consciously take control of your breathing and use it to your advantage in two ways. First of all, concentrating on your breathing helps to take your mind off of whatever is troubling you at the moment, allowing your mind and body to relax. Secondly, correct breathing increases the production of calming chemicals in your brain, allowing you to put things in perspective.

So, how do you breathe “correctly?” It’s all in the diaphragm.

Your diaphragm is the layer of muscle that divides your upper and lower torso. As you breathe in, your diaphragm should cave in to allow your lungs to fill with air, causing your stomach to rise. As you exhale, the diaphragm rises back up to push the air out of the lungs. Therefore, your stomach should rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. If your diaphragm is not involved, and your chest rises rather than your stomach, then you are “chest breathing” and limiting the amount of oxygen your body takes in. This can have a detrimental effect on your overall health.

Watch how a sleeping infant breathes. You can see their stomach rise and fall, not their chest. Oddly enough, proper breathing comes naturally to us as infants, but somehow as we grow older, we forget how to breathe correctly.

Once you understand correct breathing technique, you can use any variation of the following exercise to calm yourself in a stressful situation.

Take five to ten slow, deep, even breaths through your nose. Breathe smoothly, without holding your breath. Fill your lungs from the bottom up. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “I am” and as you breathe out through your mouth, say to yourself, “calm”. You can say anything that is soothing to your mind and helps you to concentrate on your breathing. This exercise triggers a calming response in your brain, helping your heart rate return to normal and allowing you to handle the crisis of the moment.

Take notice of your own breathing. Are you breathing from your chest or your diaphragm? The more oxygen you take in, the better off you will be physically and mentally. With practice, diaphragm breathing will come naturally to you once again. Do the breathing exercise several times a day and whenever you feel stressed out. Notice the difference that simple breathing can make.

And on that note, I will take a deep breath and get packing for that trip.

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