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An Easy Relaxation Method you can do Anywhere

When counting sheep does not seem to work, starting counting breaths

I am sure we all have those moments where we are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or maybe not able to fall asleep even though we are desperate for rest. We are then left with this uncomfortable feeling of what to do next to alleviate the.

Deep Breaths

When someone tells you to take a deep breath, it is not just a saying. The act of taking a deep breath, or 'belly breathing'

Belly breathing can help you use your diaphragm properly. Do belly breathing exercises when you’re feeling relaxed and rested.

Practice diaphragmatic breathing for 5 to 10 minutes 3 to 4 times per day.

When you begin you may feel tired, but over time the technique should become easier and should feel more natural.

The diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs, plays an important role in breathing — though you may not be aware of it. When you inhale, your diaphragm contracts (tightens) and moves downward. This creates more space in your chest cavity, allowing the lungs to expand. When you exhale, the opposite happens — your diaphragm relaxes and moves upward in the chest cavity.

All of us are born with the knowledge of how to fully engage the diaphragm to take deep, refreshing breaths. As we get older, however, we get out of the habit. Everything from the stresses of everyday life to the practice of "sucking in" the stomach for a trimmer waistline encourages us to gradually shift to shallower, less satisfying "chest breathing."

Relearning how to breathe from the diaphragm is beneficial for everyone. Diaphragmatic breathing (also called "abdominal breathing" or "belly breathing") encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.

But it's especially important for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In COPD, air can become trapped in the lungs, which keeps the diaphragm pressed down. This causes it to weaken and work less efficiently. Diaphragmatic breathing can help people with COPD strengthen the diaphragm, which in turn helps them use less effort and energy to breathe.

Here's how to do it:

  • Lie on your back on a flat surface (or in bed) with your knees bent. You can use a pillow under your head and your knees for support, if that's more comfortable.

  • Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below your rib cage.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting the air in deeply, towards your lower belly. The hand on your chest should remain still, while the one on your belly should rise.

  • Tighten your abdominal muscles and let them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips. The hand on your belly should move down to its original position.

You can also practice this sitting in a chair, with your knees bent and your shoulders, head, and neck relaxed. Practice for five to 10 minutes, several times a day if possible.

To do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow.

  2. You may place a pillow under your knees for support.

  3. Place one hand on your upper chest and one hand below your rib cage, allowing you to feel the movement of your diaphragm.

  4. Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling your stomach pressing into your hand.

  5. Keep your other hand as still as possible.

  6. Exhale using pursed lips as you tighten your stomach muscles, keeping your upper hand completely still.

You can place a book on your abdomen to make the exercise more difficult. Once you learn how to do belly breathing lying down you can increase the difficulty by trying it while sitting in a chair. You can then practice the technique while performing your daily activities.

The Science behind it: What is the Parasympathetic System?

Breathing practice, also known as “diaphragmatic breathing” or “deep breathing,” is defined as an efficient integrative body–mind training for dealing with stress and psychosomatic conditions. Diaphragmatic breathing involves contraction of the diaphragm, expansion of the belly, and deepening of inhalation and exhalation, which consequently decreases the respiration frequency and maximizes the amount of blood gases. Benefits of diaphragmatic breathing have been investigated in association with meditation and ancient eastern religions (such as Buddhism) and martial arts (Lehrer et al., 2010). It is considered to be a core component of yoga and Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) and contributes to emotional balance and social adaptation (Sargunaraj et al., 1996; Beauchaine, 2001; Porges, 2001), as well as special rhythmic movements and positions.

Psychological studies have revealed breathing practice to be an effective non-pharmacological intervention for emotion enhancement (Stromberg et al., 2015), including a reduction in anxiety, depression, and stress (Brown and Gerbarg, 2005a,b; Anju et al., 2015). A 1-day breathing exercise was found to relieve the emotional exhaustion and depersonalization induced by job burnout (Salyers et al., 2011). A 30-session intervention with a daily duration of 5 min can significantly decrease the anxiety of pregnant women experiencing preterm labor (Chang et al., 2009). In addition, similar effects on anxiety was observed in a 3-days intervention study, where breathing practices were performed 3 times per day (Yu and Song, 2010). Further evidence from a randomized controlled trial (RCT) suggested that a 7-days intensive residential yoga program that included pranayama (breathing exercises) reduced anxiety and depression in patients with chronic low back pain (Tekur et al., 2012). Supportive evidence has also come from a line of RCTs of TCC and yoga (Benson, 1996; Telles et al., 2000; Oakley and Evans, 2014). Currently, breathing practice is widely applied in clinical treatments for mental conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Sahar et al., 2001; Descilo et al., 2010; Goldin and Gross, 2010), motion disorders (Russell et al., 2014), phobias (Friedman and Thayer, 1998), and other stress-related emotional disorders.

Earlier studies have observed an attention/vigilance impairment related to breathing dysfunction in dementia and sleep-disordered breathing in individuals across all ages (Chervin et al., 2006). More recent studies have suggested that there is a bidirectional association between breathing and attention. A growing number of clinical studies have demonstrated that breathing-including meditation may represent a new non-pharmacological approach for improving specific aspects of attention. Mindfulness, for instance, contributes to alerting and orienting, but conflicts with monitoring. In addition, an 8-weeks mindfulness-based stress reduction yielded a larger effect than a 1-month intensive mindfulness retreat, on the attention altering component (Jha et al., 2007). Focused attention meditation is a Buddhist practice, whereby selective attention and the sensation of respiration must be sustained (Gunaratana, 1993/2002; Gyatso and Jinpa, 1995). Three months of intensive focused attention meditation have been found to reduce variability in attentional processing of target tones and to enhance attentional task performance (Lutz et al., 2009). Some studies have investigated cognitive and emotional improvement simultaneously, and have indicated that a brief mental training could enhance sustained attention as well as reduce fatigue and anxiety (Zeidan et al., 2010). Some researchers believe that the relaxation generated by peaceful breathing helped to manage inattention symptoms among children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Amon and Campbell, 2008). These results led to the development of a breath-controlled biofeedback game called ChillFish, which improved children’s sustained attention and relaxation levels (Sonne and Jensen, 2016).

Studies orientated toward the physiological mechanism of breathing intervention effects have indicated a shared physiological basis underlying breathing, emotion, and cognition, involving the autonomic nervous system. Physiological evidence has indicated that even a single breathing practice significantly reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate variability (HRV) (Wang et al., 2010; Lehrer and Gevirtz, 2014; Wei et al., 2016) and oxygenation (Bernardi et al., 1998), enhances pulmonary function (Shaw et al., 2010), and improves cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength (Shaw et al., 2010). A daily 15-min breathing training for 2 weeks significantly promoted mean forced expiratory volume in 1 s and peak expiratory flow rate (Bernardi et al., 1998). Breathing with a certain frequency and amplitude was found to relieve clinical symptoms in patients of all ages with sleep-disordered breathing (Chervin et al., 2006). Evidence from yoga practice also confirms a reduction of sympathetic and an increase of parasympathetic nervous system activity (Vempati and Telles, 2002; Raghuraj and Telles, 2003). Cardiac vagal tone is assumed to form part of the shared physiological basis of breathing and emotion. It is influenced by breathing and is also integral to vagal nerve stimulation that is closely associated with the physiological basis of emotion, including emotional regulation, psychological adaptation (Sargunaraj et al., 1996; Beauchaine, 2001), emotional reactivity and expression, empathic responses, and attachment (Porges, 2001). Moreover, dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system is observed in adults with anxiety (Kawachi et al., 1995; Thayer et al., 1996; Friedman and Thayer, 1998), depression (Carney et al., 1995; Lehofer et al., 1997), PTSD (Sahar et al., 2001), panic disorder (Friedman and Thayer, 1998), and other stress-related mental and physical disorders (Benson, 1996; Becker, 2000; Bazhenova et al., 2001; Jacobs, 2001).

The shared physiological basis of attention and breathing can be detected in part in the autonomic nervous system of patients with ADHD (Beauchaine, 2001), but more evidence is provided by electroencephalographic (EEG) studies and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies (Lutz et al., 2004). For instance, EEG studies have suggested that regular breathing practice during yoga and meditation can increase β-activity in the left frontal, midline, and occipital brain regions (Bhatia et al., 2003; Snayder et al., 2006), which has been associated with enhanced cognitive performance, such as during attention, memory, and executive functions (Freeman et al., 1999). In addition, fMRI studies have also detected a significant increase in activation in the bilateral inferior frontal and temporal regions under meditation, as compared to a relaxation condition. Such studies implicated the right inferior frontal cortex/right insula and right middle/superior temporal cortex as the regions involved in meditation (Hernández et al., 2015).

Cortisol, a steroid hormone of the glucocorticoid class, is released in response to stress. Cortisol release is associated with depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. The underlying mechanism may be grounded in its sensitivity for the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis (Clow et al., 2010), which regulates metabolism, immunity, and some mental processing, including memories and emotional appraisal (Pariante and Lightman, 2008). Plasma cortisol levels reflect changes in the activation of the HPA axis with changes in CO2 inhalation (Argyropoulos et al., 2002), while salivary cortisol levels have been associated with fast withdrawal of attention in response to angry faces (van Honk et al., 1998). However, the associations between breathing, emotion, attention, and cortisol have not been tested together.

Although breathing practice offers an integrated benefit for mental and physical health, the results of studies on this topic are inconsistent, because of methodological limitations in the experimental design, a lack of measurable breathing feedback, and limited sample sizes. Most cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have focused on how breathing treatment benefits individuals with particular conditions, such as women during pregnancy (Schmidt et al., 2000; Booth et al., 2014) and clerks experiencing job burnout (Salyers et al., 2011), rather than on its health promotion function in a healthy population. Most importantly, most studies have investigated physiological effects, emotional benefits, and cognitive benefits separately, which prevents an understanding of the possible mental and physiological mechanisms of breathing in terms of its potential benefit for both mental and physical health.

The present study was a pilot RCT with visible feedback breathing recordings used to monitor the breathing performance overall and to evaluate the outcomes of breathing practice. The aims of this study were to investigate the mental benefits and the hormone levels in healthy volunteers who completed an 8-weeks breathing training scheme. An emotional self-reporting scale and cognitive tests were used to measure mental benefits. Additionally, cortisol a major HPA-axis-related stress hormone in humans (Matousek et al., 2010), was also measured to examine whether the breathing practice could be a buffer for modulating stress levels in the working population. We hypothesized that an 8-weeks breathing training course would significantly improve cognitive performance, and reduce negative affect (NA) and physiological stress.

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Activating the Parasympathetic System

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When you just can't fall sleep :

4-7-8 Method

The 4-7-8 breathing technique, also known as “relaxing breath,” involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling for 8 seconds.

This breathing pattern aims to reduce anxiety or help people get to sleep. Some proponents claim that the method helps people get to sleep in 1 minute.

There is limited scientific research to support this method, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that this type of deep, rhythmic breathing is relaxing and may help ease people into sleep.

  • reducing anxiety

  • helping a person get to sleep

  • managing cravings

  • controlling or reducing anger responses

Dr. Weil is a celebrity doctor and the founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

How to do it Before starting the breathing pattern, adopt a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth. To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:

  • empty the lungs of air

  • breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds

  • hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds

  • exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds

  • repeat the cycle up to 4 times

Whether you deal with anxiety on a regular basis or just feel stressed the eff out sometimes, you probably know there’s power in slowing down and taking a deep breath. What you might not know is that while focusing on your breath is an excellent way to calm yourself, the cadence in which you breathe may be even more important and lead to greater stress-reducing benefits. In particular, what's known as the 4-7-8 breathing technique can be a helpful tool for relaxing throughout the day.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique (touted by integrative medicine expert Andrew Weil, MD) is thought to help reduce nervousness and stress, calm anxiety, and help people drift off to sleep more quickly, according to Krista-Lynn Landolfi, a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and meditation instructor in Los Angeles, California.

“While deep breathing is something that many people don’t actively think about, when consciously guided, it can relieve pain, lower blood pressure, and quiet your mind, allowing ideas and answers to flow freely and easily,” she says.

How does the 4-7-8 breathing technique work?

According to Landolfi, most people are shallow breathers who hold their breath a lot throughout the day, which contributes to stress and tension. Conscious breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 technique, can help you clear your mind and minimize feelings of worry.

“Deep breathing like the 4-7-8 technique calms the nervous system, helping to break out of the flight-or-flight response triggered by fear while also soothing the body,” says Landolfi. “It places your focus solely on your breath, freeing you from worries, while also calming the mind and relaxing the body.”

How do you do the 4-7-8 breathing technique?

While the 4-7-8 breathing technique is fairly simple once you get the hang of it, there are detailed steps to follow to make sure you’re doing it properly. While this exercise can be done anywhere at any time, it's best done while sitting or standing with a straight back to allow your lungs space to expand, says Landolfi.

  • Start with an audible exhale to open your lungs and release tension you may be holding in your shoulders. If you're especially tense, you can repeat this step a few times, gently rolling your shoulders and wiggling your hips to help you find a relaxed stance or position.

  • With your mouth closed and tongue pressed gently on the roof of your mouth, breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for a mental count of four. Then hold your breath for a mental count of seven.

  • Finally, with your mouth closed and tongue still pressed on the roof of your mouth, audibly exhale (as if you're blowing out the candles on a birthday cake) as slowly as you can, for a count of eight.

  • Repeat this for four full cycles.

If you’re typically a shallow breather, it’s common to feel a bit lightheaded when you start taking deeper, fuller breaths, says Landolfi. This is a sensation that will pass as your body becomes accustomed to a greater flow of oxygen. You can stop to return to your normal breathing pattern if you feel lightheaded, to allow the feeling to pass. Once you feel back to normal, resume the breathing technique—it will still be beneficial even if you don't get through it perfectly. When first starting out, you might find it easier to practice the exercise while seated.

“It's important to note that when first beginning the practice, Weil recommends doing just four consecutive cycles at a time for the first month; you can work your way up to eight ‘reps’ after an initial 30 days,” says Landolfi.

You can also practice similar forms of breathing exercises by simply slowing your breathing and counting your inhalations and exhalations or focusing your attention on the feel or sound of your breath. The key with the 4-7-8 technique is that the counting helps maintain your focus, leaving little room for worrisome thoughts to take hold.

How often should I use this technique?

Landolfi encourages people to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique (or simply pause to take a few deep breaths) several times throughout the day.

The key with the 4-7-8 technique is that the counting helps maintain your focus, leaving little room for worrisome thoughts to take hold.

“While this exercise can quickly, even instantly, calm and relax you, the effects are cumulative,” she says. “You can take these breath breaks while you shower, every time you go to the bathroom, whenever you get into and out of your car, a chair, or your bed, before and after every meal, or simply by setting four daily alarms reminding you to do it.”

Are there apps that can help me with 4-7-8 breathing?

The above steps can be a lot to remember when you’re stressed out in the moment and just want to calm down quickly. Thankfully, there’s are plenty of apps that can time your breathing for you to make the process even easier. The following are some of Landolfi’s recommendations.

  • Breathe - 1 Minute Meditation: This app takes you through the 4-7-8 breathing technique and allows you to set up reminders.

  • 3 Minute Mindfulness: This app prompts you to schedule three-minute breath breaks throughout the day, offering many varieties of breath work to choose from, whether you want to calm your mind or energize your body.

  • Box Breathe: This app uses visual prompts to help you regulate your breathing. With this app, a box opens with guidelines for how many seconds to breathe in, hold, and exhale, which keeps you focused on your breath, rather than any stressful thoughts that might be running through your head.

  • Insight Timer: This app offers a wide variety of meditations, from simple chimes that sound to count off seconds to guided meditations that can help you focus on your breath and feel more centered.

Relaxation techniques can be practiced anywhere, whether you're at home, work, in transit, or any other location. Here are several relaxation methods that you can use to unwind and de-stress, no matter where you are:

  1. Deep Breathing:

    • Find a quiet spot, if possible, or simply close your eyes.

    • Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth.

    • Focus on your breath and try to let go of distracting thoughts.

    • Repeat for several minutes until you feel more relaxed.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation:

    • Find a comfortable place to sit or stand.

    • Pay attention to your breath or the sensations in your body.

    • Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings without judgment, and then let them pass.

    • Stay in the present moment and breathe deeply.

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

    • Tense and then release each muscle group in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head.

    • Pay attention to the sensation of relaxation as you release tension from each muscle group.

  1. Visualization:

    • Close your eyes and imagine a peaceful and calming place, such as a beach, forest, or garden.

    • Picture yourself there, focusing on the sensory details like the sound of waves, the scent of flowers, or the warmth of the sun.

  1. Mini-Meditation Breaks:

    • Take short meditation breaks during your day. Even a few minutes of mindful breathing can make a difference.

    • Find a quiet corner or simply close your eyes at your desk, focusing on your breath or a calming image.

  1. Progressive Relaxation with Breath:

    • Combine deep breathing with progressive muscle relaxation.

    • As you exhale, imagine letting go of tension in each muscle group.

  1. Grounding Techniques:

    • If you're feeling overwhelmed, use grounding techniques. Focus on your five senses:

      • Sight: Observe the colors and shapes around you.

      • Sound: Listen to the sounds in your environment.

      • Touch: Feel the texture of an object or the ground beneath your feet.

      • Taste: Savor a small piece of food or a drink.

      • Smell: Identify any scents in your surroundings.

  1. Quick Body Scan:

    • Take a few moments to mentally scan your body from head to toe, noting any areas of tension or discomfort.

    • Try to consciously release tension in these areas.

  1. Breathing Exercises:

    • Experiment with different breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 technique (inhale for a count of 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8).

    • These exercises can quickly calm your nervous system.

  1. Use Guided Relaxation Apps or Audio: There are many mobile apps and online resources that offer guided relaxation sessions and meditation exercises. You can use these apps discreetly on your smartphone whenever you need to relax.

  2. Aromatherapy: Carry a small vial of essential oil with a calming scent, like lavender or chamomile, and inhale it when you need to relax. Be mindful of any allergies or sensitivities.

  3. Gentle Stretching: If possible, do some gentle stretching exercises to release tension in your muscles. Focus on your breath as you stretch.

Remember that relaxation techniques can vary from person to person, so it's essential to find what works best for you. Regular practice of relaxation methods can help reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and enhance your overall well-being, regardless of your location or circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Life happens. Feelings happen. But what methods we turn to when we are feeling overwhelmed will inevitably.

Woo Sah


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