Inhale. Exhale. Ahhhhh… “This is the first moment in weeks I’ve had to take a breath,” my sister declared the other day, exhaling loudly. She’s juggling an out-of-work husband, a job she hates, and the care of our 80-year-old mother. Her remark struck me so resoundingly, like a bell ringing to highlight something profoundly true for us all, perhaps, because a client had said something similar to me just a few hours earlier. “I just need some room to breathe,” said Jackie, a mother of three with a full-time job as a school principal.
Breathing room. It’s a metaphor for something we all could use more of: some space in our lives—space to catch up with ourselves, to regroup, to metabolize whatever we’ve been going through so we can know how we feel and what to do next.
Pausing to breathe is more than a metaphor, however. Consciously taking a few deep breaths is actually the quickest way to experience the body’s relaxation response.
When you are under stress, your breath is shallow. Breathing slowly and deeply tells your body and mind that it’s OK to calm down. More oxygen gets to your brain. Your heart rate slows. Your muscles relax. You come back into yourself better able to handle the problems you face. Breathing helps create the ability to face challenges with persistence, calmness, patience, and acceptance. It reminds us that we can handle the nutty things life keeps dishing out.
I had an occasion to use this technique just the other day—when my daughter and her friend spilled blue nail polish on my brand-new white tile and proceeded to “clean up” using my white bath towels. I wanted to explode. Several breaths later, though, my sense of perspective returned. Yes, the towels were a lost cause. But, thanks to a few deep breaths, I wasn’t.
The ins and outs of better breathing
Try this relaxation exercise from breathing guru Andrew Weil, MD, best-selling author and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona. The payoff? “Blessed relief” from constant thinking, Weil says.
- Sit with your back straight.
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge just behind your front teeth.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Inhale quietly through your nose with your mouth closed to a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, this time whooshing to a count of eight.
- Inhale again and repeat the exercise three times for a total of four breaths.
TIP: If you have trouble holding your breath, speed up but stick to the four-seven-eight count. Practice twice a day, but don’t do more than four breaths at a time for the first month; later you can work up to eight breaths. You may feel a little light-headed, Weil says, but it will pass.