Stress is a part of life. There’s no getting away from that. And really, there’s no need: Our bodies know how to deal with short bursts of acute stress. It’s when we’re stressed all the time, however, that stress becomes a problem. Chronic stress is associated with anxiety and depression, digestive issues, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain, diminished libido, and illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. That’s why we need techniques to relieve stress.
In our modern world, it can feel harder and harder to get the relief we need. Especially as many of us continue to work from home, and the lines between “on” time and “off” time are blurred. Add in cooking more meals, home schooling kids, and managing the barrage of information from the news and social media… It’s a lot.
Now for the good news: There’s a simple, quick, and free (!) way to relieve stress. It’s as easy as taking some deep breaths. Yes, just like your mom told you to do.
How Deep Breathing Relieves Stress
“Taking a deep breath physically stimulates the vagus nerve,” says Brooklyn-based naturopathic doctor Lauren Geyman. This nerve is the largest nerve in our body. “It runs from our brain and innervates most of our major organs, literally connecting mind to body.” The vagus nerve lowers our blood pressure, reduces our heart rate, and gets our digestive juices flowing.
“I also think a lot of what we stress about is out of our control,” Dr. Geyman adds. “Regulating the breath reminds us of the control we do have. I find it’s a great way to clear the mind and focus. From a calm space, we can turn our focus away from stressors and toward the creative outlets and joys in life.”
There are many approaches to deep breathing, but Dr. Geyman’s favorite is known as Four Square, Box Breathing, or Combat Breathing.
“It’s a really simple technique that’s easy to remember, and I love that you can do it both in the privacy of your own home, as well as in a busy place without anyone really noticing,” she says. “You can do it if you feel claustrophobic on a crowded subway, when you wake up with a buzzing mind in the middle of the night, during a stressful work meeting, or as a daily meditation practice.”
The Easy, Military-Approved Way to Relieve Stress
It seems too easy, too accessible to really work, but it actually does. It works so well that it’s even used by the military to help soldiers stay calm in stressful situations.
Inhale for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of four. Exhale for a count of four. Hold for four.
That’s it. It truly couldn’t be easier.
Just remember: When practicing deep breathing, inhale through your nose, enough to expand your lower belly. (This is why it’s sometimes called “belly breathing”).
Geyman also adds that “if we turn deep breathing into a regular practice, it becomes much easier to remember to do when we’re faced with a moment of acute stress. Stress has become so routine in our lives. It makes sense to make stress management routine as well.”