Just breathe. Sound familiar? These two words are ubiquitous. Whether trying to decrease stress, anxiety, and muscle tension or increase our focus and centeredness, we are frequently encouraged to breathe.
There is a good reason for this, particularly when it comes to muscle tension and pain. Physical pain and emotional stress often go hand in hand. When we are stressed, our muscles tense, and this tension can increase the physical sensation of pain. Pain can also cause stress, increasing muscle tension and creating more pain. Also, it is common to hold our breath when we are stressed or in pain. I catch myself holding my breath all the time. Unfortunately, doing so increases pain and stress.
So, one helpful way to manage stress and chronic pain is to practice relaxing our muscles and nervous system via breathing exercises. These exercises may sound simple yet consistently practicing them can be easier said than done.
Many helpful breathing exercises exist, and I am going to outline some of my favorites. While it is true that there are times when it is beneficial to engage in longer relaxation exercises — If your muscles are particularly tense, it may take 15 to 20 minutes to feel a sense of relaxation — I am a fan of practicing brief exercises that you can quickly, and realistically, implement regularly.
Table of Contents
1. Breathe Slowly and Rhythmically
Practice breathing in and out slowly. Imagine your breath is a wave in the ocean that is slowly coming into shore and then slowly receding back into the ocean. See if you can practice breathing slowly and steadily for about two to five minutes (or longer as helpful).
2. Breathe Through Your Nose
It can be helpful to practice breathing from your nose only. This helps us breathe more slowly, aiding stress relief and muscle relaxation. So, practice keeping your mouth closed and breathing in and out from your nose. Again, breathe slowly.
3. Lengthen the Exhale Portion of Your Breath
The exhale part of the breath is the most relaxing. The exhale is like a brake for our nervous system helping it slow down. Practice making the exhale portion of the breath longer than the inhale. For example, if you naturally inhale to a count of three, practice slowly exhaling to a count of five.
4. Breathe From Your Belly
Diaphragmatic or belly breathing tends to be the most relaxing type of breath. This is because when you breathe using your belly, you stimulate the vagus nerve which activates the relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure and lowering stress. With belly breathing, you want to breathe deeply into your belly.
To practice, sit or lie down, and place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Slowly inhale through your nose, practicing keeping the hand on your chest still, and allowing the movement to come from your belly. When you inhale, your belly should rise as if you have a balloon in your belly that is filling with air, and when you slowly exhale, your belly should gently collapse as if the balloon is deflating.
If you are not familiar with belly breathing it can take practice. To start, you can sit in a chair and lean forward placing your elbows on your knees while breathing naturally and slowly. This position forces you to breathe from your belly so you can get to know what the sensation feels like.
Brief (Can Be) Best
Sometimes longer practice is most helpful. Yet, I am a fan of consistent, brief practice throughout the day. This may mean taking a few intentional breaths throughout your day or sitting and breathing for several minutes. One quick way to practice is to pause multiple times per day and take about three to five intentional breaths using one of the breathing styles from the exercises above.
Don’t Wait to Practice
It is important to not wait until tension and pain increase to practice these exercises. They will be most effective if you initially practice them when you are not in a lot of pain. This will help you to remember to use them and will make them more effective when your pain increases.
So, slow down and breathe on!