It’s 3AM and you have a ten-page essay due in the morning and you only have an outline and a bibliography of questionable formatting finished and you have run out of caffeinated beverages to drink and if you don’t find some way to write something decent and write it fast then you are going to fail your class.
Or, Mercury’s in retrograde and so none of your emails or bill payments are sending and you need to finish writing your resume and cover letter for the job you want because the job posting expires tomorrow and you can’t find your cellphone and you think you might have forgotten it on the bus and you’ve accidentally double-booked your schedule and you don’t know which friend is going to be more offended that you have to cancel.
Or, you need to write a blog post (haaah) and read 200+ pages of material for your classes and prepare for a test and clock in 15-20 hours between your two jobs and make it to two separate appointments and go grocery shopping and try to squeeze in a few hours of yoga and also eatingsleepingshowering and remember to call your parents and also your best friend has just had a nasty breakup and is leaning on you heavily for emotional support–
Are you stressing yet?
Sooner or later, something like this happens to all of us. Either we fill our plates past maximum capacity and don’t notice until it’s too late, or else something entirely unexpected lunges out of the blue and knocks your plate right off the table and leaves you with a lot of broken china to clean up. I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen to you, or what it’s going to be when it does–but I can tell you the easiest, fastest-acting, most effective, least expensive, most universally available way to cope with it.
I’m about to change your world with this advice, friends. Better be takin’ notes.
Here it is:
OKAY BUT I’M ALREADY BREATHING
On the surface this can seem like pretty paltry advice. How many times have you been stressed out of your gourd and someone’s looked at you and said “dude just breathe” and your only thought has been WHAT DO YOU THINK I AM DOING PRACTICING FOR DEEP DIVING.
So I’ll add a caveat: breathe correctly.
For something that we need to do in order to, y’know, live, it’s astonishing how many of us have no idea how to breathe right–or at the very least, how to breathe consciously. The breath, and the oxygen that the breath contains, is an amazingly versatile tool at humanity’s disposal, and we can harness it for everything from stress management to staving away illness during flu season. In yoga this is called pranayama, or ‘mastery of the breath’; advanced yogis can use it not only to gather or release physical/emotional energy but also to improve immune system, to change internal body temperature, to alter metabolism levels, and more.
Now, I’m not here to coach you through anulom vilom or kapalabhati or any of the other yogic pranayama techniques–that takes a good deal of practice and is best done with an experienced instructor on-hand. What I’m here to do is to inform you about how breathing is linked to our stress response, and how to manipulate your breathing in order to stop freaking your freak about those six Advanced Placement exams you’ve got coming up this week.
Sounds useful as heck, don’t it?
Sympathetic & Parasympathetic: The Anatomy of Your Stress Response
Here’s an experiment: the next time you’re freaking out about something, take a moment to notice your breathing. What does it feel like? How does it differ from normal? Chances are it’s become short, choppy, shallow–or maybe you’ve stopped breathing entirely.
Compare to your breathing while you’re at rest–it’s probably much smoother, slower, and more even between the inhales and the exhales.
This difference in breathing is a telltale sign of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems at work. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is what governs your fight-or-flight response; it’s responsible for releasing adrenaline from the adrenal glands, for increasing heart rate and contracting muscles, and for halting ‘non-crucial’ functions of the body, such as digestion. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is its polar opposite; when it’s active, you will experience decreased heart rate, relaxed muscles, and a general calming of the body and the mind.
The SNS can be activated by shallow, rapid chest breathing (which is usually the beginnings of hyperventilation), and the PNS is activated by the opposite–long, even breaths taken from the belly, or diaphragm breathing.
Due to a) our tendency to slouch over desks and laptops and squish all our internal organs, and b) our workaholic society putting us under a constant state of chronic stress, very few of us breathe naturally from the diaphragm anymore, even though it is our body’s natural state of breathing. If you make the effort to retrain your breathing back to the belly, you’ll notice pretty soon that everything just works better–your muscles are less tight/sore, your heart rate is more easygoing, your mind isn’t so cluttered, and your mood is more stabilized. Basically there’s a magic emotional and physical cure-all literally everywhere around us and it’s called oxygen.
- In general, inhaling for longer than you exhale activates your stress response (which can be useful in small amounts, like if you’re feeling super lethargic and need an energy boost) and exhaling for longer than you inhale activates the PNS and calms you down, which is good for just before an exam or bedtime. (All you insomniacs, take heed.) For all that time in between, the optimal balance is, well, balance–your inhales and exhales should ideally be equal in length.
- Count your breaths! One of the easiest meditations in the world. Breathe in for a count of six, then breathe out for a count of six. Keep doing this until it becomes easy, and then perhaps breathe in for a count of six and breathe out for a count of eight. The repetition of the counting in your head plus the rhythm of your breath will help you chill out in no time.
- Sound it out! Okay, I’ll teach you one yogic pranayama technique. It’s called ujayi pranayama, alternately known as ‘ocean breath’ and ‘victory breath’ in English, and it’s very simple: all you have to do is constrict the back of your throat a little, just enough to hear the sound of your breath coming in and out of your nose. It ends up sounding a little like the waves on a beach, hence the name, and it’s a very soothing sound to the human brain for some reason. Trying this in conjunction with breath counting will pack a powerful punch to the face of your stress response.
- Use a visual! If you need to see it to believe it, then try breathing in sync with this gif:
I find the geometric shapes add an extra dimension (haaah) of calmness and order to the whole affair, don’t you?
100% Accessible, Iron Lungs Notwithstanding
I find that a lot of de-stress techniques are limiting in some way: I’d love to recommend yoga classes to everyone who tells me they’re experiencing chronic stress, but I can’t because not everybody can participate in a conventional yoga class–and not every student has the money for it, besides. But breathing is universally accessible–everybody breathes, no matter your race/class/gender/etc. It’s a technique that requires no resources other than those which you already have: your lungs, the planet’s atmosphere, a smidgen of your time. It’s something you’re already doing, right now, this very second, as you read these words. All it takes to transform it from automatic process into de-stressor extraordinaire is a little extra attention.
So I implore you, the next time you’re feeling completely overwhelmed and like you won’t even be able to make it out the door, let alone pass the exam in class–take a few deep breaths, and see if your outlook doesn’t change.