Calming the stress response
There are several necessary areas of our lives that can regularly contribute to the stress we experience. In today’s fast-paced, always-on world, we face incessant demands from our environment. Technological advancements make it so we are constantly reachable. Texts, emails, notifications, and alerts can easily be perceived as immediate calls to action (even when they are not).
The problem is not stress alone, but the prolonged exposure to stress, by which it becomes chronic. We advance through the stages of stress – alarm, adaptation, and exhaustion – when there are no breaks from it and no reprieve from its activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Prolonged stress, coupled with the absence of rest, leads to burnout as the body’s coping faculties become depleted.
Since acute stress can impair cognitive performance, slow response time, and reduce attentional resources, stress often reduces both our performance and recovery, resulting in even more stress – a vicious cycle! Relief from stress can’t simply be reserved for the occasional vacation or weekend getaway; we need consistent daily reprieve from the body’s stress response. Our brains and bodies need regular breaks.
In today’s world, breaks don’t often come naturally, so we must consciously create them. This can be done by creating a calming evening routine, practicing proper sleep hygiene, and scheduling time to unwind, but it’s also important to learn how to defuse stress during times it’s most rampant.
We must alternate between periods of responding to and recovering from demand. We must have periods of intense, sustained effort followed by periods of pure, restful recovery. In my work with clients, I refer to this as the “art of oscillation.” It’s the key to sustained and improved performance, as well as lasting health and wellness. To master this art is fundamental to achieving balance in one’s life.
The role of breath
“Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Through targeted breathing exercises, we can reduce SNS activity and promote rest and relaxation on demand by shifting into a parasympathetic-dominance state. Breathing practices reduce emotional exhaustion and burnout as well as provide an effective non-pharmacological intervention for stress, depression, and anxiety.
When we are stressed, we tend to take more shallow, rapid breaths, jump-starting a feedback loop that further activates the stress response. By breathing slowly and deeply into the diaphragm, we can consciously intervene and physiologically reverse this process.
Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean you’re breathing well. Eupnea is balanced, good, and unlabored breathing. If you look at babies and animals at rest, their midsections slowly expand and contract as they breathe. This is how we breathe most of the time in a natural state, but as adults experiencing chronic stress, we often forget how as we become trapped in stressed, erratic breathing patterns.
These deep, full breaths into the belly occur naturally in a relaxed state. We call this deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, which improves attention and decreases cortisol levels. This way of breathing engages the vagus nerve and activates the body’s relaxation response. Since proper breathing is one of the highest-mileage interventions for reducing stress, we’ll start here.
The basics of breath work
Many meditative practices tell us to keep the spine erect and “dignified.” Today, we often find ourselves in anterior positions with our arms stretched out in front of us. Driving, typing, writing, or simply sitting in a conventional chair can promote slumped posture and inhibit deep breathing. Sit straight on a chair or cushion to allow access to deeper breaths.
Relax tension and breathe through the belly.
Channel your breath into your lower belly. A helpful tip for this is to imagine there is a balloon gently inflating and deflating behind your belly button as you breathe.
Breathe deeply and slow down exhalation.
Slow, paced breathing has been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve, improve heart rate variability, and promote relaxation. Slow breathing enhances autonomic, cerebral, and psychological flexibility with links to parasympathetic activity and emotional well-being. Focus on longer exhalations while releasing tension throughout your body.
Breath work strategies
Slow, deep breathing alone can be an effective intervention for decreasing stress and improving mood. The following strategies can provide structure and pace to your practice. Counting can also help occupy mental activity, taking your mind off the stressors you’re taking a break from.
Some people prefer to add mental labels to inhalation and exhalation, such as breathing in peace and breathing out stress. In the spirit of bio-individuality, one of IIN’s core concepts that means we must find what works for us as individuals, we recommend experimenting with different strategies to find what’s most comfortable and helpful for you.
Breathe in for four seconds in and out for six seconds.
A great place to start is by inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. This creates a ten-second breath, and breathing six or less breaths a minute promotes many stress-relieving benefits.
Try the 4-7-8 breath.
This method was created by Dr. Andrew Weil, integrative medicine pioneer and IIN visiting teacher, to help patients decrease anxiety and get to sleep faster.
Inhale for four seconds through your nose, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds through your mouth. Repeating this cycle a few times is often all that’s needed to notice a beneficial response. Dr. Weil recommends placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth throughout this process, making a whooshing sound when exhaling.
Here's a demonstration of the 4-7-8 breath.
Consider box breathing.
Sometimes known as square breathing, this technique can relieve stress while you maintain alertness and concentration. For this reason, the box-breathing method is often employed by professionals who regularly operate under pressure, like Navy Seals, police officers, and professional athletes.
Begin with a few slow breaths before initiating the box breathing sequence: Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and hold for four seconds. Try this four times. You can experiment with making each “side of the box” longer if you prefer, such as five or six seconds, depending on what feels best for you.
Additional body-based practices for stress relief
In addition to breath work, there are many awareness and body-based practices that can reduce stress by taking our attention to the present moment and our physical experience. This is effective because stress is often fueled by stressful thoughts. Since the body responds to the mind, when we are consumed with stressful thoughts, we will manifest the physiological experience of stress.
Here are a few methods that can increase awareness and presence to dissolve stress in the moment:
Use progressive muscle relaxation.
This body-based relaxation technique is shown to reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure. Progressive muscle relaxation involves consciously contracting and slowly relaxing muscles throughout the body.
Tense each muscle group for around 4–10 seconds and then release it for 10–20 seconds. Practice this throughout your entire body. To start, tighten the muscles in your face for five seconds by squeezing your eyes shut, wrinkling your forehead, or smiling widely. Next, relax your face and breathe deeply as you feel the tension release from your muscles. Move through the rest of your body – your hands, arms, shoulders, back, stomach, buttocks, thighs, and feet – and repeat the tension-relaxation sequence for each muscle group, one at a time.
If you’re pressed for time, try simply making a fist, squeezing as tightly as you can, and then slowly releasing it. A stress ball can help with this as well. There are many guided recordings and apps available that can help you apply progressive muscle relaxation.
Try meditation and mindfulness.
Meditation practices, particularly mindfulness, can reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Some meditative practices simply involve paying attention to the breath and can be combined with the breath work basics covered previously. Other approaches involve nonattached, nonjudgmental observation of the mind’s contents – simply noticing thoughts as they arise – or of the surrounding environment through our senses.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience.” Mindfulness involves directing your attention toward the experience of each moment without the cognitive load of stressful thought or the mental drama about environmental demands.
Practice calming activities.
Incorporate activities like meditation, reading, drawing, journaling, coloring, taking a bath, or practicing light movement, like tai chi or yoga. Go for a walk and spend time in nature. Schedule calming, recovery-oriented activities, such as getting a massage or going to a float tank, particularly after periods of heightened stress.
Create a relaxing environment.
Our internal states are often impacted by our environments. To the extent it’s possible, make your work environment clean, organized, and inviting. Keep your living spaces and even your digital devices free of clutter. Bring calming elements into your environments. Some examples include diffusing essential oils, drinking soothing tea, lighting incense or candles, or playing relaxing music.
Finding what works for you
Try each of these strategies and see which are most helpful. If any of these are new to you, it’s often best to first practice when you’re not stressed in order to become familiar with them. This will increase your ability to successfully practice these strategies when you need them most. You may also find you prefer different approaches for different situations, allowing you to develop an individualized inventory of stress-busting strategies.
Remember, these are just some suggestions. Feel free to identify others or make up your own. Find what works for you and practice several times a day or as needed to calm the stress response. Over time, this will take less conscious effort as your body relearns how to breathe properly and respond to stress when it arises.