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Controlled Breathing: A Simple Tool to Manage Stress

Controlled BreathingThese are stressful times and it makes sense to talk about steps you can take to calm mind and body. Like a change in cabin pressure, the best action is to take care of yourself first so you are available to support others. You do that by partnering with your breath.

Controlled Breathing.
The simplest and most potent tool we have to prevent our brains from being in a constant state of stress is controlled breathing. Controlled breathing is research tested and has long been a feature of Eastern health practices. This was first recognized in the 1970’s with the publication of Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, The Relaxation Response .

How it works.
The physiological basis of stress versus calm comes down to two opposing nerve systems-a kind of ying and yang for regulation of heart rate, blood pressure, swallowing and digestion. The sympathetic system is triggered when humans perceive a threat in the immediate environment. The pupils dilate and heart rate quickens as norepinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol are released. A fight or flight reaction is triggered. In today’s world fighting or running doesn’t help with perceived stress unless there is physical threat.

The opposing system is called the parasympathetic system. The parasympathetic system is based on a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve that runs from the base of the brain, through the pharynx, the thorax and terminates in the abdomen. The vagus nerve has several branches that innervate the heart, lungs, and abdominal organs. Controlled breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. When stimulated the vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter increases calmness and focus resulting in lower blood pressure and slower heart rate. Controlled breathing triggers a relaxation response.

How to do it.
Controlled breathing involves 1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five, making sure abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation. Try using this method for at least 10 breaths when feeling anxious. With practice this will become your Go To tool when feeling stressed or anxious. This is a method you can easily practice with other family members.

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