Simple Stress Relief

Last year I enrolled in a stress management class that ended up being one of the most rewarding college courses I’ve ever taken. The best part was that nearly everything we learned had a useful, real-world application. There’s no doubt that I experienced a reduction in overall stress during the semester itself, but most of the lessons quickly faded with the arrival of summer.

Three deep breaths.

That’s the secret. You just learned the easiest and most effective way to handle stress under ANY situation. A quick explanation:

Stress affects every human being on the Earth to some degree. The worst part is that 99% of modern stressors are social in nature and didn’t exist before the rise of civilization. Even more interesting is that despite our modern stress response being triggered differently from that of our ancestors (think running for life from a saber tooth cat vs. nervous for a job interview), the stress response itself has remained unchanged after 10,000 years.

That creates quite a problem. Ideally, the stress response activated by fleeing for your life should differ from the one triggered by an upcoming job interview. Since that’s not the case, you’re left with the emotional response of a life threatening situation while sitting in a waiting room. Further explanation is unnecessary as we’ve all experienced the sort of problems that result.

Luckily, taking three deep breaths is the most effective and immediate way to reduce stress and clear the mind. It works because the stress response causes the left side of the brain to take control and the right side to shut down. The left brain houses all the functions necessary for survival where the right brain controls creativity and rational thought.

And while the left brain is great at saving your life, it’s awful at creating an accurate perception of reality. It’s the side that lights up when you’re angry or thinking negative thoughts. For whatever reason, the left brain causes even the most outlandish scenarios to appear true in the heat of the moment. This is why it’s so easy to make assumptions when your mad at someone. Essentially, we would like to prevent our left brain from taking control during any situation in which our life is not in immediate danger.

Enough background. So how does three deep breaths do anything to combat the stress response?

First, these aren’t the same deep breaths you take for the doctor during a visit. There’s a bit of a technique to it, but nothing remotely difficult.

  1. Exhale completely. You want to ensure that your next breath will make use of your entire lung capacity.
  2. Inhale through the nose until you feel the upper chest expanding. Since you don’t normally inhale to this extent it should feel noticeably different from normal. 
  3. Hold it in for a second, literally just one. You should feel the sensation of being ‘full’ with air.
  4. Exhale through the mouth with a giant sigh. The goal is to evacuate the air from your lungs both rapidly and completely.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 two additional times.

*Note: It’s highly recommended that you stop this exercise promptly after three breaths. Additional breaths are shown to cause light-headedness and the practice is discouraged by medical professionals. Too much oxygen to the brain can potentially be dangerous. *

Each breath causes a change in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels of the brain. When in equilibrium, the two gases are present at the perfect amount. (Remember, when stressed the left side is active and the right is shut down.) Performing a deep breath delivers a high dose of oxygen to the brain and raises the total oxygen content above the normal level. A subsequent decrease in carbon dioxide prompts the brain to shift back towards equilibrium (the brain wants to be in equilibrium). It just so happens that  when in equilibrium both sides of the brain are equally utilized. After three consecutive breaths the brain will return to near perfect equilibrium and both sides will again be active.

(Note that during the stress response the brain is unable to restore equilibrium on its own. This is why you must directly alter its chemical composition and force it to return to normal.)

At this point rational thought is restored and the ability to think clearly returns. The stressful situation should suddenly appear far less severe than it was just 60 seconds ago. You may recognize important facts that you previously ignored or even discover the perfect solution to a problem. The effects are immediate and quite noticeable.

If you haven’t already, try it now or the next time you feel yourself stressing out. If you’d rather not try it in public, perform the exercise tonight while lying in bed.

Featured Image: buddha Photo By [neonow]

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