It may seem odd—unnecessary even—to mention the importance of breathing in a series about stress. For most of us, breathing is one of those things we never think about. You may not even consider breathing in the grand of health and wellbeing. Most people are unconscious of their breathing. They take it for granted. Since we do it automatically, we rarely think about it. Yet without breathing, we would not live! We can go far longer without water and food than air. We can go days without water and weeks without food but only minutes without breathing. A lack of oxygen to the brain for even a few minutes can cause severe brain damage and even death.
Breathing brings oxygen to every cell in the body. Cells need oxygen to transform nutrients into energy. Oxygen is essential in the digestive process. And the body uses oxygen to oxidize or burn off metabolic waste products and other toxins. Breathing is an essential bodily function.
In terms of managing stress, remember to take some deep, slow breaths throughout the day. Do this especially when you feel stressed.
In fact, when you remember to do it, breathing is actually one of the easiest—and certainly the least expensive—relaxation techniques there is.
Most of us fail to breathe correctly even though we are breathing all the time. The vast majority of us are in the habit of breathing shallowly. This means that the breaths you take don’t get down into the lower part of your lungs the way deep breathing does. Try taking several slow, deep breaths right now for practice. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Hold for a count of ten. Let the breath out through your mouth. Do this several times in a row. Feel your stomach and abdomen rising and falling.
You may have to take some time to practice this in order for it to become part of your regular routine. Post a note near your computer or on your desk where you will see it as a reminder.
Remind yourself to “just breathe.” Re-teach yourself to breathe correctly and feel the difference almost immediately. The tension will flow out of your shoulders. You will feel more relaxed and alert.
When you are feeling especially tense, try the following exercise:
1) Breathe in through your nose. Count to five, filling your torso from the bottom up, with air. Keep your chest and shoulders still. Feel your body expanding from the abdomen first and then the lower back.
2) Breathe out through your mouth. Keep your lips together except for an opening large enough to let the air out in a measured way. Make a low whispering sound to a slow count from one to ten. Again, keep your shoulders and chest still. Feel your body deflating from the abdomen first and then the lower back.
A Caution about Smoking as it Relates to Breathing and Stress
While I am talking about the importance of breathing for good health, I should offer a note about smoking. Smoking in general has gone down nationwide between 1964 and 2014 (BeSmokeFree.gov). Even so, one in five American adults and teens still smoke. For many teens, smoking is a temptation because it is “cool” or it is a form of open rebellion.
Regardless of the reason, each day, 3200 people under the age of 18 try their first cigarette. Out of that 3200 people, approximately 2100 become daily smokers. Even though they know about the harmful effects of smoking, people still smoke. And for those who have already become addicted, they know they should quit. But quitting is hard. After all, smoking is an addiction.
I can speak to this issue because I am a former smoker. I started smoking in college because my friends smoked. By the time I started, the warning labels were already on the cigarette packages. So I should have known better. But when you are 20, you think you are invincible. What did I care then about “long term health risks?”
First, I convinced myself that I wouldn’t get hooked. Then I convinced myself that even though I had developed a smoking habit, I could quit anytime I wanted. When I did finally decide to quit, it wasn’t that easy, though. I finally did quit in 1987 after a few failed attempts. I have been a non-smoker almost twice as long as I was ever a smoker. In spite of that fact, when I was in my mid-50’s I was diagnosed with viral-induced asthma. It turns out, the fact that I had been a smoker in my youth for fifteen years aggravated my condition.
I bring this up because there will come the day when the habits of your youth may come home to roost. If you have engaged in healthy habits, that’s a good thing. Keep it up! If you haven’t, it can come back to bite you in the most unexpected and sometimes unpleasant ways.
I cannot be clearer. If you smoke, please quit. If you haven’t ever started, good for you! Don’t start. If you have someone in your life who smokes, let them read this post.
Smoking isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for the people around you. It is a habit best never started, but once started, as hard as it is to quit, you should make every effort to quit. Seek out help if you need to. Your lungs crave fresh air filled with fresh air. Your body will thank you in the long run.