Mindful Minute: Four Focused Breaths to Start the Day

At the end of a recent class, one of my students asked if I could recommend an exercise or posture that might help him feel a little less stressed and as he put it, scatterbrained, at the start of his day. I first let him know that what he was describing was quite normal. Most of us feel some stress for the first 30-45 minutes after waking as we anticipate the events of the upcoming day. The clinical term for this review of our daily calendar is the cortisol awakening response.

Now, this routine process can become more of a concern when we already experience significant stress due to a major life event, illness or work-life imbalance. In these cases we don’t always bounce back from this morning stress bump and often experience difficulty staying focused and interacting effectively with others (my partner can verify this). To be honest, when I am operating in this stress fog at the start of the day, I am much more likely to make a big mess preparing my morning tea, nick myself shaving, or not see that pedestrian in the crosswalk…stress can rob us of precious awareness of what’s happening around us and within us.

Research suggests that slow focused breathing can gently activate the attention centers of the brain and dampen our body’s natural stress response upon waking (1,2,3). I have made the exercise below part of my morning routine…in fact it’s the first thing I do upon opening my eyes…even before reaching for my phone. Feel free to try it now, or set a reminder for yourself in the morning.

  • From a comfortable position on your back, with your legs extended or bent at the knees, place one hand on the belly and one on the chest.
  • Inhale slowly through the nose for three seconds.
  • Exhale softly through the nose for three seconds.
  • Extend the breath to four, five or even six seconds if that feels good.
  • Try to relax and focus on the rise and fall of the belly and chest with each breath.
  • Stay for as long as you like, or your morning routine permits…

I hope this simple exercise can help you feel a little more grounded and observant as you start your day. If you would like to learn more about mindful breathing and stress, explore the three wonderful resources below and in the Wellness Resources section.

  1. Brown, R. & Gerbarg, P. (2012). The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance your Emotions. Boulder, CO: Shambala.
  2. Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection. New York, NY: Norton.
  3. Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. New York, NY: Riverhead.

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