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Better Breathing

Kate Middleton photo Kate Middleton · 28 Jun, 2020

We all know breathing is important, right? But did you know the way you breath can help you calm down when you're stressing (or freaking) out? Here's how and why

So, breathing, it's pretty important right? I mean, it keeps you alive obviously, but did you know it's also one of the biggest influences on your stress system? No.

Now, listen, I don't mean how stressed out you are. I mean, the physiological system that helps your body and your brain respond to whatever it is that life is throwing at you. And if life is throwing a lot at you right now, whether that's just that you're super busy, even with stuff, that's all good. Your stress levels can get a bit buzzy, 'cause your mind is trying to keep up with everything that's going on.

And if we're a bit hyper, one of the first things that changes is the rate that you're breathing. Your breathing gets faster as part of your fight or flight response. You've probably heard of that. It's getting you ready in case you need to act, do something fast: leg it or face up to whatever it is that you're being challenged by.

But that stress system it's what's called a feedback loop. So that means there's something that changes because of that reaction also feeds back into the reaction and makes the reaction stronger. So it becomes like this cycle - a round and round effect. So your stress makes you breathe more in case you need to fight or run away. But that breathing more reactivates your stress system. So it kind of makes sure you're set up and ready over that whole crisis moment however long it lasts.

And all of that's kind of useful if you're facing a possible bear attack or something like that. But what if you don't want to stay buzzy? What if actually you're not facing a bear? What if you've just got exams on or something else that's stressing you out? Like someone's not replied to a text or there's some tricky stuff going on at home. What if actually what you want is to switch that off and chill out a bit or sleep, or just not have that horrible buzzy on the edge feeling all the time.

And this is where the influence of your breathing on your stress system can come in really handy. Because it can also switch down the system just like it can switch it up. Because when you breathe in, you switch up your stress reaction. But when you breathe out, it's kind of complicated. But trust me on this, it switches it down.

Actually, technically what it does is it triggers another system which balances your stress system. So it's kind of like squirting a hose pipe onto a fire. But anyway, the end result is it turns down your stress response.

So what we wanna do with a breathing exercise to help you feel less stressed to help you relax and chill out is balance how much you're breathing in versus how much you're breathing out. Because breathing patterns where we're breathing nice and deep, and where we're breathing in for shorter periods of time. So we're not doing, what's called hyperventilating. Those sort of shorter shallow breaths where you breathe in a lot when you're stressed. You do that even though you don't notice it.

We're gonna move to where you're breathing nice and deep. And you're breathing out for longer periods of time because all that time you're breathing out is like the hose being played on the flames. It's taking the heat out of your stress reaction.

So how could you do this right now? I wanna share with you two top tips.

Number one, the easiest way is to put some really good tunes on and either hum, or sing along. Whatever's your thing. And the reason is when you're humming or singing, you're breathing out and you have to do it nice and slow to sustain the note. You can't just all your breath out at once. It just doesn't work. You won't be able to sing or hum. You have to do it more slowly, more gradually. And it's brilliant for balancing your stress response. That's why everybody's into choirs these days. And even better if you practise again and again and again, with the same song, your brain starts to link that song with feeling calm. And then you get to the point where if you're out and about somewhere and you feel stressed or you feel anxiety coming on, you can find a quiet corner, hum your favourite song to yourself. And it will help not just your body to change, but your mind to change as well.

Another great thing though is called 4-7-8 breathing. You got that, say it with me four, seven, eight. And what those numbers are, is that the amount of time you spend in each phase of a breath, you never knew there was three phases of breathing, right? But there are. So what you do is you breathe in for a count of four. Then you're gonna hold your breath for a count of seven. That's to let all the gas exchange and biology stuff happen. And then you're gonna breathe out for a count of eight, nice and slow and sustained. Like you're blowing a big, long row of candles out or like that hose being played on the fire.

Why don't we give it a go now? You might wanna get yourself somewhere nice and comfortable. I'm not actually gonna do it 'cause I can't talk at the same time, but I'll talk you through it. So right now as you're saying, I'm gonna count to four. You're gonna breathe in and I'm gonna count to seven while you hold and then I'm gonna count to eight while you breathe out. Are you ready? Let's go.

Breathe in: two, three, four. Now hold it: two, three, four, five, six, seven. Now out, nice and slow: two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.

Well done, that was awesome. How do you feel? It's not super easy actually. So some of you, you might be thinking actually I felt I was a bit much. 4-7-8 breathing isn't some like, mmmmh little exercise. It's hard work. Something you have to practise and get better at. Your muscles, literally that you use for breathing might not be used to doing it. It's gonna take you a bit of practise to get really good. But if you can learn, 4-7-8 breathing has been shown to be one of the quickest ways to dampen down your physiological stress response. It's particularly good if you're struggling to get to sleep.

So give it a go and if you search on Headstrong, you can find a longer article about how to do this breathing stuff better.

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