You’re rushing to write an essay that’s due in less than an hour. Notifications pop up on your phone, emails buzz as they reach your inbox, and people at the neighboring table chatter loudly. How do you focus on work? How do you take care of the task at hand?
The answer is simple: Take a deep breath.
When you’re on edge, your sympathetic nervous system notices. It triggers a “fight or flight” response, which gives you a rush of adrenaline to respond to the stressor. Your blood pressure and your heart rate increase, and your breathing becomes rapid and shallow.
Luckily, research has shown that practicing slow, conscientious breathing in these moments of panic can calm the mind. Deep breaths lower your stress levels, lessen your anxiety, and reverse your state of panic altogether. In fact, they actually change the body’s chemistry. Instead of signaling the sympathetic nervous system, slow breaths invite the parasympathetic nervous system to take over and give you a little R&R.
"Here you can use the mind to actually change your body, and the genes we're changing were the very genes acting in an opposite fashion when people are under stress," stated Harvard researcher Herbert Benson in an interview about breathing with NPR.
Long story short: Taking control of your breathing can help you focus during crunch time or as deadlines approach. But as instinctual as breathing is, you can still improve this basic physiological function.
A breath is a cycle: inhale, exhale, repeat. The average person takes 14-20 breaths per minute, but the suggested number for feeling your best is a third of that. Breathing slowly and deeply at a rate of five or six breaths per minute will both rest and restore your body.
Practice counting your breath.
Taking fewer breaths per minute can lower stress hormones and allow your parasympathetic nervous system to kick in. Learn to slow your breathing down by calculating each inhalation and exhalation.
- Breathe in slowly while counting to five in your head.
- Allow yourself to pause before exhaling at the same speed as your inhalation.
- Continue this practice for six rounds and then return to your normal breathing rhythm.
Direct your breath.
We have more control over our breathing than is often believed. Empower yourself by sending oxygen to the parts of your body that need a little extra love. Sore muscles, bruises, and tight areas are no match for this meditation!
- Lie down, if possible. Otherwise, find a position that feels comfortable.
- Inhale deeply and imagine the air traveling through your body.
- When you exhale, visualize it coming back the same way it went in.
- Adjust the exercise to your needs.
- Inhale sending the breath down the spine into the tailbone, then exhale back up and out of the mouth.
- Imagine a river that circles through your abdomen, and send the breath traveling with it. Remember to reverse the direction for the next breath to balance the cycle.
- Use the weight of your hand or another object like a sandbag or sweatshirt to add pressure to the area of focus.
Use your breath to become healthier.
In yoga, the science of breathing is known as pranayama. Some yoga gurus consider this to be more important than any of the physical postures in a practice. Bhastrika pranayama, also known as bellows breath, strengthens the respiratory system and jumpstarts metabolic function to increase natural weight loss.
- To begin, sit up tall with your hands on your knees.
- At a pace of one second for each inhalation and exhalation, take 10 forceful but comfortable breaths through the nasal passages. The contractions and expansions of your diaphragm will synchronize with your breathing.
- When you have taken your 10 breaths, hold your breath for a few seconds and then let it all go.
- Make it a goal to complete five rounds of this routine.
In pranayama, the ancient Indian practice of controlling one’s breathing, there are many different techniques that have proven to stabilize blood pressure, boost energy levels, relax muscles, and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.
Being in tune with your breath unites the physical body with the mind, which is a form of meditation. You don’t need to be a guru to pause for a moment to take a deep breath. However, accessing this powerful practice can change the way you take on challenges and the way your body deals with ailments. In his article Meditation as Medicine, Lawrence Edwards, PhD argued that meditation is medicine for the entire mind-body system. Unlike medication, however, meditation has no adverse side effects, and it is easily accessible without a prescription.
Meditation is a simple yet powerful engagement. It can teach the average college student how to stop rushing to the next project or party. When assignments are piling high, don’t scramble to take care of everything at once.
Take a deep breath. Focus.
When you notice yourself picking up your smartphone—writing and reading all at the same time—note that you’re flipping the switch on your automatic nervous system and allowing your sympathetic nervous system to take over. In doing so, stress hormone levels rise with the “fight or flight” instinct, heart rate increases, and your performance ability declines.
Take another deep breath. Let it go.
The most basic physiological function can guide you to your greatest potential. Take conscientious breathing techniques with you to your final exams, job interviews, and social situations. You can practice your breathing anywhere to release stress as easily as... [exhale].