Breathing for Recovery from Stress

The following instructions are to help with stress and are not meant as treatment for any medical conditions. If you have any discomfort from any technique then stop using it.

Recovery breathing maintains our reserves.

Stress tends to wear us down physically and emotionally. In the model of stress that I use, this comes from our reserves being depleted. When our reserves are depleted we feel physically exhausted or emotionally drained. Even thinking about doing something can feel too much for us.

We need to maintain our reserves no matter what type of stress we are dealing with. Breathing techniques can help us do that.

We can optimize the rate we recover from stress by developing three aspects of breathing. These are

  1. Enjoying the breath
  2. Pacing the breath
  3. Deepening the breath

Enjoying the breath

This is the most important. We must shift our attention to the breath in order to simply enjoy it. We experience the breath as a gift. If we think about breathing, we realize that we do not take air into our lungs. We receive the air. We create a space in our body and air flows into that space. Then we release. Receiving the breath as a gift and then releasing it. As we breathe we participate in the life of every other being on the planet. This is to be enjoyed.

Enjoying the Breath Audio Track

Pacing the breath

Our lungs, heart and brain communicate with each other. When we breathe at a slow and gentle pace we send a signal to the heart and brain, activating processes to help us recover from stress. We can think of this as getting our lung, heart and brain “in tune” with each other. However, this does not happen if we are forcing the breath. The pace needs to feel natural. For most adults the pace is about 6 breaths/minute. Children seem to do better with faster paces. Even for the same person the pace that works best can vary.

To find a recovery breathing pace simply breathe along with one of the videos. You can watch the video pacer, or simply listen to the audio to guide you. Each video lasts about 90 seconds. Find a pace that feels good to you and enjoy breathing with it. Slower is not necessarily better. Comfort is more important. If you have several paces that feel equally comfortable than use the slowest of those.

Paced Breathing Videos

Deepening the breath

The third quality of the breath is its depth. The depth of the breath refers to where we are bringing the air into our lungs. Deep breaths bring the air down toward the base of our lungs. Shallow breaths bring the air into the top of our lungs. The depth of the breath is different from the size of the breath. A big breath moves a lot of air. A small breath moves a little air. We can take small deep breaths. If we train our breathing muscles to do that, then we are able to get plenty of oxygen with very little effort.

We must learn to breathe deeply into our lungs without effort. That is the most difficult part of the training because it is usually the opposite of how we breathe. Remember, enjoying the breath is the most important task. If we are not enjoying the deep breathing we need to stop.

To bring air into the lower part of your lungs, sit upright or stand. Place your hands on your flanks, the soft area between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your pelvis. As you breathe in feel your flanks push into your hands gently moving them apart by an inch or so (a few centimeters). As you exhal,e your hands will move back in toward the center of your body. Let your chest, neck and shoulders relax so that the only movement when you breathe is the movement of your hands and your flanks. Other parts of your abdomen will move too, but focus on movement in your hands and flanks. The movement is subtle and you should not use effort to exaggerate the movement.

Your flanks expand because when you bring air into the lower part of your lungs you are pushing your stomach, liver, spleen and other organs down into your abdomen. Your flanks expand to make room for those organs. Then when you exhale those organs move back up under your ribs so your flanks contract.

Practice for a few breaths at a time several times per day. As your muscles get more used to the technique, increase the amount of time of each practice to a couple of minutes. Once you can do that comfortably, start practicing without your hands on your flanks. Practice as often as you can, even for a couple of breaths at a time. You want your neuromuscular system to make this type of breathing automatic at rest.

Here is a short video of me demonstrating the technique. Note that my hands move only slightly as I breathe in and out.

Combining enjoyment, pace, and depth

Once you have become comfortable with each of the three methods, then your body will be able to shift into a comfortable, slow, deep breathing pattern without you having to expend much effort. You will be able to place your attention on a relaxing experience and just let your body breathe, trusting that it will do so in a pattern that helps you recover energy quickly. You can find many relaxation audio tracks and videos on the web.

Some people find an audio signal that varies at about the pace of their recovery breathing pace is especially helpful. The link below will take you to a page of ocean and wind tracks at a wide variety of breathing paces. Simply find one that is soothing and just listen. You can start with one that is at the same pace as your recovery breathing pace. However, do not TRY to breathe with the ocean as that will cause you to force the breath. Simply listen and allow your body to settle into whatever pace it happens to settle into.

Paced Ocean Waves