When I’m feeling tense and frustrated, the last thing I want to hear from anyone are these four words: “You need to relax!” Aside from reminding me that I am A. tense, and B. frustrated, telling me to relax isn’t going to make it happen. I’m simply not equipped with a voice activated switch that toggles between UPTIGHT and CHILL.
The process of deciding to relax and actually feeling relaxed just doesn’t happen that quickly. Yet there are techniques that can help speed up the process. Many of them involve making conscious changes to your breathing (I can thank my yoga teacher for this bit of insight).
For fun, I searched “breathing exercises” online and found dozens. Apparently, I’m not the only one out there needing to relax. If you want to know whether you need to chill, just tune in to HOW you breathe.
If you’re tense, you’ll tend to take more rapid, shallow breaths, which increases heart rates and muscle tension, especially in the chest.
Over time, that type of shallow chest breathing can become habitual (you’re doing it now, aren’t you?). In other words, you tend to breathe more with the upper part of your chest, which doesn’t allow as much oxygen into the lungs. When less oxygen transfer to the blood occurs, there’s a less efficient delivery of nutrients to the body.
To see if you’re a chest breather, lie flat and place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your abdomen. As you breathe, see which hand raises more. If it’s your right hand, you’re a chest breather. If your left hand rises, you’re an abdomen breather.
Abdominal breathing is also known as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. It’s an effective way to force more air into all parts of the lungs to help improve muscle efficiency, improve immune system function and release tension.
The good news is, if you’re not breathing with your abdomen, you can train yourself to do it.
Belly Breath Exercise
- Sit up straight or lie down flat. Exhale deeply.
- As you inhale, relax the belly muscles so that it rises as though you’re filling it with air.
- After filling the belly, keep inhaling and fill the middle part of the chest. You’ll feel your chest and rib cage begin to expand.
- Hold this breath for a moment, and then slowly begin to breathe out by relaxing your chest and rib cage. Finally, begin to pull your belly in to release the remaining air.
Practice this technique for about five minutes, and you’ll definitely feel more relaxed at the end of it. Over time, you’ll find that it can decrease your heart rate and release tension. During the day, repeat the technique any time you feel like you need to take yourself down a notch or two.
The 4-7-8 Relaxing Breath Exercise
This exercise is promoted by Dr. Andrew Weil, one of the most well-known proponents of alternative health techniques.
- Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue near the base of your front teeth.
- Breathe in through your nose slowly to a count of 4.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Exhale through your mouth for a slow count of 8. As your exhale with your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth, make a soft “wooshing” sound.
The tip of your tongue should stay in the same position throughout the exercise. Repeat the cycle four times. While length of your count doesn’t matter, it’s important that the exhalation take twice as long as the inhalation and that the ratio of 4-7-8 is maintained.
Dr. Weil claims that this exercise is a “natural tranquilizer” for the nervous system that becomes more potent as you practice over time. He also recommends doing it at least twice a day. And though he says you can’t do it too often, he instructs to not do more than four breaths at a time during the first month of practice. After a month, you can extend the exercise up to eight breaths.
Use the exercise any time you feel tension and try it before falling asleep.
There are many more breathing exercises out there. Some are intended to give you more energy and some are intended to help you relax. But nearly all of them instruct you to concentrate on the depth and pace of your breathing. As a result, the exercises come with a meditative effect.
Do they work? That’s for you to answer, of course. But any time you focus on slowing yourself down and do it regularly, you’ll find that it helps you relax.