5 Simple Breathing Exercises to Reduce Office Stress
The fight or flight response is the physical response that kicks in when facing a physical threat, such as a growling dog. However, in our daily lives, it is more likely to be falsely triggered in the absence of imminent danger and instead due to a psychological source of stress, such as having to give a big presentation, or even something as simple as going back to the office in the post-COVID world. In that case, the physiological changes that help us survive during a real threat become a source of anxiety and stress.
Although fight or flight response and the changes caused by it are primarily autonomic functions, there is a way to calm the body down: Breathing. By intentionally taking deeper, slower, diaphragmatic breaths, we can slow down our heart rate and help to put the brakes on the acute stress response.
Deeper breaths, especially diaphragmatic breaths, help trigger the opposite response called rest and digest, which is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system, another branch of the autonomic nervous system. You may be suffering from severe anxiety and panic disorders, or you may just want to manage daily stress more effectively. Learning about the fight or flight response and turning to relaxing breathing exercises could help you.
Here are five breathing techniques to get you out of the fight or flight mode and calm you down.
- Deep belly breathing
Also called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, deep belly breathing utilizes the lower parts of the lungs and expands the belly as opposed to shallow chest breathing, which only utilizes the upper chest. It is a very efficient and effective method used in many breathwork techniques. Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system in charge of the body’s relaxation response. Triggering the rest and digest response helps reduce the blood pressure, bring the heart rate down, lower the stress level and improve your mood. It is also an excellent tool to alleviate pain and decrease anxiety. Deep diaphragmatic breaths let the body know that everything is alright and invite peace and calm.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique on its own and also a method used in many other breathwork exercises. So, it is crucial to get it right. If you are new to breathwork, it’s best to practise deep diaphragmatic breathing lying down. Then, once you get the hang of it, you can practise it sitting down or standing up, at your desk or on your commute —no one will know.
To practise deep belly breathing:
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below the ribcage.
- Inhale deeply through the nose and let the air fill toward your abdomen.
- Exhale slowly through the nose as you relax your abdomen.
- The hand on your chest should be relatively stable as the hand on your belly rises and falls with each breath.
Keep breathing like this for five to ten minutes or until you feel calm and relaxed.
- Box breathing
Box breathing, also known as square breathing, gets its name from the equal duration of inhaling, holding the breath, exhaling, and holding the breath again. This technique is famously used by U.S. Navy Seals to facilitate concentration in high-stress situations. Box breathing is the ideal method to reduce stress and improve your mood. It helps lower your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and reduce the stress chemicals in your body. After a couple of minutes of practising this method, you will feel rejuvenated.
In box breathing, carbon dioxide builds up in the blood as you hold your breath, which facilitates the entry of oxygen into the cells. It also stimulates the vagus nerve, which plays a significant role in the parasympathetic nervous system. A strong vagus response is critical to physical and mental health.
To practise box breathing:
- Sit up straight in a comfortable position.
- Slowly breathe in through the nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for four.
- Breathe out through the nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for four.
You can visualize a four-by-four square as you practise this exercise. Your belly should rise as you inhale and relax as you exhale. Do not try to force the air out but simply release it.
Once you get the hang of it, you may increase the length of the breaths to five or six counts for deeper relaxation. The important point is to inhale, hold, exhale and hold for the same duration.
- Coherent breathing
Resonance frequency breathing or coherent breathing is a relaxed diaphragmatic breathing technique at around five or six breaths per minute, which has a regulating effect on the autonomic nervous system. Coherent breathing helps to find a balance between the function of the sympathetic nervous system, which gets us moving and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us. This technique may help with anxiety and depression, improve heart rate variability, strengthen resilience, and increase the capacity to cope with stress.
To practise coherent breathing:
- Be seated in a comfortable position and bring your attention to your breath.
- Take a deep, diaphragmatic breath for a count of six.
- Exhale for a count of six.
Continue for a couple of minutes and try to notice the change in your mood.
A comfortable inhalation and exhalation duration differs from person to person. Some may prefer a 4-6, 5-5 or 5-7 cycle instead of 6-6. Experiment with different counts and find one that fits you best.
- Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic breathing technique also known as Nadi Shodhana, which means “clearing the channels of circulation.” You can practise this cleansing and balancing technique as part of a yoga or meditation practice or do it separately to calm your mind and reduce stress.
To practise alternate nostril breathing:
- Place the tips of the index finger and middle finger of the right hand between the eyebrows.
- Close your eyes, take a deep breath in and out through the nose to relax and concentrate.
- Now, close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril.
- Then, close the left nostril with your ring finger and exhale through the right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril, switch fingers and exhale through the left nostril.
The idea is to alternate nostrils after each inhalation and exhale through the other nostril. The practice should begin by inhaling through the left and end by exhaling through the left. You can repeat this exercise for five to ten cycles and see how you feel.
Consistency is helpful in this practice, so try to match the duration of the inhales and exhales. You can do this by counting to five or another number you are comfortable with.
Hilary Clinton talks and writes about using this technique to manage stress after losing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
- Bhramari pranayama (Bumblebee breathing)
Bhramari pranayama is a soothing and relaxing yogic breathing technique that takes its name from the black Indian bee. Bumblebee breathing helps lower the blood pressure and heart rate, dissipate anger and reduce stress. Due to the humming sound created in this technique, you may not be able to practise it at the office or during a meeting, but maybe someone will hear you hum on the bus, and you get to teach them an excellent stress-relieving method.
To practise Bhramari pranayama:
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Slightly part your teeth but keep your mouth closed.
- Gently close your ears with your thumbs- no need to insert your fingers deep into your ears. Spread your other fingers and rest them on the crown.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose, and as you exhale, let out a low-pitched hum from the back of your throat. This should sound like the buzzing of a bee.
- Try to make the sound as soft and smooth as you can. You will feel the vibration through your head.
Perform the technique ten times, and you will feel a shift of energy and a sense of peace and quiet within you.
Breath Hub offers many breathing sessions focusing on improving physical, psychological and emotional health. Regular practice of breathing exercises is the best way of reaping the countless benefits of breathwork, from improving sleep, reducing stress and increasing energy to fostering a healthy connection with yourself, releasing fear and anxiety and gaining clarity.
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