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Breath: An Effective Tool to Manage Stress by Restoring Homeostasis

Our bodies are well-equipped to maintain a stable and balanced internal environment, what’s called homeostasis, for robust functioning of cells, organs, and the entire body. Several physiological processes help maintain and/or restore this internal state of equilibrium in order to orchestrate normal physiological functions for health and well-being. Our interconnected and interdependent body systems work together, each contributing to the homeostasis of other systems in a fine-tuned balance.

Stress is body's way of responding to any kind of (sudden) demand or threat, thereby disturbing this internal physiological balance and altering our inner reserve of energy. Human bodies are designed to handle the effects of short-term acute stress, which can have many positive effects such as motivating us, helping us achieve our goals, meet the deadlines and stay focused.

However in today’s competitive, fast-paced modern world, we are constantly juggling responsibilities, meeting expectations, and struggling to find a balance between work, personal and family life. We keep pushing ourselves through all this chaos, oblivious to losing the "sense of being", inadvertently hoarding the stress and negative emotions, compromising our quality of life, and often heading towards burnout. This lifestyle leads to what we call chronic stress, constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, or repeated acute stress. Such prolonged/chronic stress manifests itself in a plethora of physical or emotional health problems such as a lack of energy, headaches, sleep disorders, muscular tension, digestive disorders, agitation, depression, and anxiety, to name a few. In addition, it seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions and chronic illnesses like obesity, heart disease, neuropsychiatry disorders, vascular disease, and asthma.

Further, this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has silently enveloped our lives over the last year. We have experienced an insidious increase in the stress, leading to a complex array of negative emotions exacerbating both mental and physical health conditions, effects of which may outlast the pandemic. Moreover, there’s multitudinous increase in exposure times and use of information and communication technology (ICT) in work life and private life resulting in the “techno-stress” that has led to psychophysiological stress reactions, sleep disturbances, musculoskeletal symptoms, exposure to bad ergonomics, and mental overload (“Zoom fatigue”) unfortunately affecting all age groups.

The pervasive and damaging effects of chronic stress are seen on all body systems including muscular, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems. Under acute stress, concerted action of these body systems, especially the activation of sympathetic nervous system (SNS) actively moves our body systems into fight or flight mode, preparing our body to guard against injury or threat. As the stress event passes, the body returns to its normal state and the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates the recovery of the body. However, under chronic stress conditions, these body systems actively continue to secrete high levels of stress hormones, to trigger physical reactions and stay in fight or flight mode. That creates physiological imbalances culminating in the health issues.

In short, stress has become the bane of modern existence and has become such an integral part of our lives that we don’t even notice it or its effects. But, instead of now feeling stressed out about surviving the stress in our lives, let’s take a moment to re-evaluate our stress level. Focus on how you feel in the moment now. Noticing the state of your mind and the quality of your breath can help you understand your inner state – if you are anxious, you will find your breaths rapid, short and shallow; if you are feeling sad or low, you would sigh using longer exhalations; whereas if you are excited, you inhale deeply. Developing this awareness is the key – our breath is intimately connected to our state of mind and by learning to skillfully manipulate and regulate our breathing, we can change the state of our mind, how we feel in the moment, and effectively change our lives by allowing us to better manage the external stressors.

Let us now take a brief look at an example practice of Breath Awareness that embodies the above principles. You should try to find an appropriate time of the day that suits your schedule, and practice this routine daily.

  1. Sit comfortably or lie down quietly, close your eyes, relax your body softening the muscles, and take a moment to bring awareness to your breath.

  2. Notice and feel each inhalation and exhalation. Experience the sensations of inhalation and exhalation.

  3. As you begin to consciously notice each breath, don’t worry about correcting any single breath, but let each breath merge fluidly into the next breath forming an unbroken stream, observing relaxed breathing.

  4. Try to observe the subtle patterns, the flow, the quality, and the ease in your breath and get familiar with it – building breath awareness in the quiet period.

  5. Slowly allow your breath to become smooth, deep and continuous (without any pauses).

  6. Slowly and steadily lengthen each inhalation and exhalation without forcing your breath.

  7. As you are able to stay focused on your breath, notice how it becomes more readily accessible allowing you to be fully present in the moment, and reducing the impact of your emotions on your breath and mental state.

  8. Continue watching your breath for five to ten minutes.

Incorporating this in a daily practice or exercise routine will consciously allow you to use breath awareness to return to normal relaxed breathing under stress.

This practice can be deepened in different ways by focusing on other characteristics or elements of breath, like movement of the rib cage (from side to side and from front to back), chest, or the diaphragm. One may also choose to lengthen exhalation as compared to inhalation with each breath cycle, and/or focus on directionality of the flow of breath by controlling respiratory musculature (e.g., expanding the belly first and then chest on inhalation or vice versa).

In the next blog post in this series, we will explore the connections between Pranayama (Breath regulation techniques), Energetics and Integrated practice of Hatha Yoga.

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