Posted Under Health & Healing

Belly Breathing Techniques: Learning to Relax in Uncertain Times

Relaxing with Dog and Book

We're in the midst of a health crisis that has upset the equilibrium worldwide. Here, at home, the threat of the coronavirus has closed schools, restaurants, and bars. Stores are emptied, travel restricted, and events cancelled. I never imagined that people would be advised not to visit grandparents or go to the gym. All of our well-intentioned plans have succumbed to logistical and financial recalibration as we're asked to work from home and our savings take a nosedive. As the unknowns pile up, anxiety levels elevate. No wonder we feel distracted and uptight.

Dealing with upheaval is always stressful. Yet, succumbing to fret and fear impairs our ability to think clearly and stay healthy. It also makes slowing down and getting some much-needed rest a challenge. Given that stress is both cumulative and destructive, these uncertain times call for a reliable way to replenish your energy. When you're stressed, your biochemistry is plugged in to a survival mentality that makes letting go counter-intuitive. This means you're constantly on alert and unable to relax even when you're exhausted and need a good night's sleep. And, if you happen to nod off, sleep ends up being fitful and spotty. Have you noticed how one night of poor sleep effects your ability to show up responsibly, resiliently, and lovingly the next day? Research has shown that inadequate sleep night after night will undermine your health and well-being.

Like many people, you may want to settle down after a full, demanding, stress-filled day, but get waylaid by a non-stop thoughts, tense muscles, and amped up physiology. Just telling your body to let go and relax adds to the problem. And, even when you fall asleep, you don't stay asleep. In order to give yourself a break, you need to interrupt the pattern with some active, focused relaxation. Many people report good results when they set time aside for a soothing bath, meditation, or restorative yoga poses before bedtime. Recently, I've found that placing my hands on my belly and quieting my gut-brain does the trick.

A bit of simplified science will help explain why this works for me. It all has to do with the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the abdomen. Amongst other things, this wandering nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is the rest-digest counterpoint to the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system. In other words, any time you're all worked up and need to rest, you'll want your PNS to step in and tell your brain to chill out. Because the vagus nerve has PNS receptors in the digestive tract, doing some deep belly breathing is a good way to activate a "relaxation response." This, in turn, reduces anxiety, stress, anger, and inflammation. When you're fatigued and in rest-digest mode, sleep is on the way.

Try it out for yourself:

  • Thirty minutes before sleep, dim the lights and turn off the screens. Even better, put your phone in another room.
  • Once in bed, get comfortable with adequate pillow support and cozy covers.
  • Scan through your body, letting each muscle surrender to gravity. Tell your body that the day is done and all is well.
  • Then, gently place one hand on your solar plexus and the other on your lower abdomen. Feel how your belly moves with each inhale and exhale. Locate pockets of discomfort and let your breath dissipate the tension.
  • Breathing deeply and slowly, string three or four inhale-exhales together and then do a few more. Before you know it, you'll be tucked into a restful sleep.

Don't be discouraged if your attention drifts away from your belly after just a couple of breaths. Once you discover that you're off thinking-worrying-planning again, just return to your breathing body. In an over-stimulated, over-connected world, simple body awareness takes practice. Notice how your focus is either centered on word thoughts or on body sensations—but never both at once. Because of this, belly breathing has the potential to calm both mind and nerves. And, if you awake in the middle of the night or in the morning with your mind a-buzz and body anxious, just take a few minutes to belly breathe and calm your nerves again.

Over the past couple of years, unfortunately, we've all become way too familiar with how stress builds up and undermines health and equanimity. Instead of ramping up and letting your sympathetic nervous system run the show, set aside some quality time to destress and find your equilibrium. Before bedtime is great. But, any transition is a good time to practice—walking across a parking lot, between appointments, or before or after work. Then, whatever you do next, you'll be more relaxed. In the long run, learning how to relax is a valuable asset for traversing all the ups, downs, and unknowns of life.


About Ann Todhunter Brode

Ann Todhunter Brode (Santa Barbara, CA) has focused on the relationship of body, mind, and spirit as it shapes the physical experience for more than forty years. As a teacher, therapist, healer, and writer, Ann is a ...

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