It seems like the world gets more complex every day. Our jobs become more demanding, our family’s needs become greater, and now we realize that a pandemic can turn our lives upside down in just a matter of days. All this increasing stress is putting our nerves on edge.
Some people have learned how to deal with stress more effectively than others. Those who haven’t need a quick and effective way to calm their nerves. Fortunately, there is a way. It’s called mindful breathing.
You may have already heard of mindful breathing, but maybe you’re not sure how it can help, or how to practice it. In this article, I’m going to share with you 5 ways mindful breathing can calm your nerves and help you relax. Then I’ll show you how simple the practice is and how quickly it works, so you can be more at ease during stressful times.
|Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com|
1. Calm Your Mind
One of the ways that mindful breathing calms your nerves is by calming your mind. By calming your mind, you reduce the traffic jam in your mind that makes you restless and anxious. It helps you see yourself and the world with greater clarity by bringing you back to the present moment, where all life is taking place.
Many of us have a racing mind that seems almost impossible to slow down. Notice how I said “almost impossible.” The truth is that calming your mind is easier than you might think. It is actually more natural for our mind to be at rest than it is to be agitated. By sitting quietly and doing mindful breathing, you allow your mind to settle down naturally.
2. Calm Your Emotions
Mindful breathing calms your emotions in two ways. First, by calming your mind, you reduce the number of thoughts that trigger your emotions. Second, with a calm mind, you see things with greater clarity, so you process events in your life with a more realistic perspective. Let’s examine these two ways a little bit more.
Our emotions are the result of the way we process events and information. Emotions are always preceded by our thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious. So, by calming your mind through mindful breathing, you simply reduce the number of thoughts that produce emotions.
And since mindful breathing allows you to see the world with greater clarity, you’ll be able to see things differently. You’ll change the programming in your mind that leads to the stressful emotions. On a deeper level, you’ll be more objective in your analysis of information and events. You’ll also see that many things that happen in your life have nothing to do with you personally, so you won’t attach any emotions to them to begin with.
3. Calm Your Body
Mindful breathing also helps calm your body. One of the ways it does this is by relaxing your muscles and controlling the production of noradrenaline, a stress hormone. When you breathe mindfully, your brain sends a signal to your muscles that it’s OK to relax. This is an instinctive reaction that we’ve developed through the evolution of our species. We’ll examine this in more detail below.
Another way that mindful breathing calms your body is through a synergy between the mind, body, and emotions. As you calm any one of these three areas, each will have a calming influence on the other. Think about it for a moment. You can’t have a calm mind with a tense body, or a calm mind with wildly erratic emotions. All three work together.
4. Trigger the Relaxation Response
There are also physiological reasons mindful breathing helps you relax. The body reacts to mindful breathing in what is called the “Relaxation Response.” The term was coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response, where humans react to stressful situations by fighting or running away. Well, the Relaxation Response is basically the opposite reaction. It is a way for us to relax when we are under excessive stress.
Remember, stress is a necessary response to tense situations where we have to deal with dangerous or critical situations. However, when we are under constant pressure from our environment, that reaction to stress will persist indefinitely, and this is dangerous to our health. This is where we can use mindful breathing to trigger the Relaxation Response.
In the Relaxation Response, what happens is that your metabolism decreases, breathing slows, heart rate slows, muscles relax, and blood pressure decreases. When you do deep breathing, oxygen supply to the brain increases, and this stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls energy expenditure, heart rate, and intestinal activity, among other functions. This is largely what promotes a state of calmness when you practice mindful breathing and meditation.
Another way by which breathing helps you relax is by stimulating the brain to release endorphins, the hormones that give you a feeling of calm and well-being. The way it works is that when you take a deep breath, your heart rate quickens slightly, and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down. When you do this repeatedly, your breath and heart rate will become in sync, which triggers the release of the endorphins.
5. Improve Your Health
Most of us take our breathing for granted. We never think about our breathing until we have some difficulty or ailment. But did you know that how you breathe, and how much, can have a significant impact on your health?
In a long-term study, researchers found that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t factors that they had predicted, such as genetics, or diet and nutrition, but rather lung capacity. That is, the larger the lungs, the longer the life spans. They found that with larger lungs you can draw in more air, which leads to better circulation, and less wear and tear on the body.
Researchers have also discovered that greater lung capacity is associated with lower stress levels, less anxiety, and fewer incidences of depression and other mental disorders.
People with larger lungs take slower and longer breaths, so they naturally receive the benefits associated with greater lung capacity. However, this doesn’t mean that those of us with lower lung capacity can’t avail ourselves of the same benefits.
We can train ourselves to take deeper and slower breaths. This is where mindful breathing comes in. Instead of taking short and shallow breaths, make a conscious effort to take a slower and longer breath through your nose, then let it out at the same pace. Try this for a few minutes, and you should experience a calming effect, especially if you’re particularly tense.
Studies have also shown that deep, slow breathing can, in some cases, heal various respiratory ailments, such as asthma, allergies, and even emphysema and autoimmune diseases. There are various other methods and techniques to help you increase your lung capacity.
Breathing Through Your Nose
Another interesting thing that researchers found is that it makes a big difference if you breathe through your nose vs. your mouth. They found that breathing through your mouth can lead to neurological disorders, periodontal disease, and a higher risk of respiratory infection. And if that’s not enough, mouth breathing increases your blood pressure, snoring, sleep apnea, stress level, and lowers cognitive function.
Through nose breathing, you will absorb 18% more oxygen, so you can significantly lower your risk of developing these health problems. The way to make nose breathing a habit is to make a conscious effort to do it. That is, practice mindful breathing.
How to Practice Mindful Breathing
There are various breathing techniques that revolve around mindful breathing. Here I am going to discuss mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is essentially mindful breathing. In a mindfulness meditation session, you generally sit quietly following your breath. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to train ourselves to be in the present moment and observe what is happening in ourselves and the world around us. Since the breath is always taking place in the present moment, we use it as our anchor.
Here are some basic mindfulness meditation instructions:
Find a quiet place where you will not disturbed for a few minutes. Sit in a chair with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, and your hands in a comfortable position. Gently close your eyes, and begin observing your breath. When a stray thought or outside distraction interrupts your concentration, don’t dwell on it, then gently bring your attention back to your breath.
As you breathe, make a conscious effort to breathe through your nose. Occasionally, take a few deep breaths. Remember to inhale slowly, and exhale slowly. Don’t try to breathe like this for the whole session if you’re not used to it, as you may hyperventilate.
If you’re new to mindfulness meditation, you can start by doing it for about 5-10 minutes at a time. As you get more comfortable with the practice, you can increase your session time to 15-20 minute. I would suggest practicing regularly, such as 4-5 times a week, or every day if you like. The idea is to have some consistency and commitment in order for it to stick, and for you to receive the health benefits.
Take a Break
Another thing you can do is to periodically take a short break and practice mindful breathing. All you have to do is momentarily stop whatever you’re doing, take 3-5 mindful breaths, then resume what you were doing. This should only take a few seconds. The great thing about this mindful breathing technique is that it keeps your mind from getting too agitated, so you can remain calm most of the time.
You can also practice mindful breathing during idle times, such as when you’re waiting in line, or waiting for an appointment. This is a great way to make good use of that time.
If you’re like most people, your life has become more complex and stressful as you’ve built a family and advanced in your career. As the demands on your life have increased, so has your stress level.
Many of us never learn how to relax until we’re overwhelmed and stressed out. The good news is that the simple mindful breathing techniques described above are highly effective and work quickly. Furthermore, they also don’t take much time to practice.
You don’t have to let the demands on your life keep your nerves on edge. Not only can you reduce your stress level with mindful breathing, but you can also keep it from rising in the first place.
 Greater Good Magazine: What Focusing on the Breath Does to Your Brain
 Search Inside Yourself: Why Mindful Breathing Benefits Mind and Body
 Psychology Today: Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response
 Science Daily: Parasympathetic nervous system
 The American Institute of Stress: Take a Deep Breath
 Neurocore: Does Deep Breathing Really Do Anything?
 Lung Health Institute: How to Increase Lung Capacity in 5 Easy Steps
 The Wall Street Journal: The Healing Power of Proper Breathing