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.
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.
Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection. New York, NY: Norton.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. New York, NY: Riverhead.
Each of our breaths is an open window into the present moment.
Most of us tend to think of our breathing as an unconscious, involuntary process. But it is also one of the few automatic systems in our body that we can control. Research shows that when we pay attention to our breath, good things happen. Conscious breathing can help us reduce stress, increase attention and improve our mood (Heckenberg et al., 2018; Tang et al. 2015). It should come as no surprise that yoga, mindfulness and many mind-body exercises are built upon breath awareness. Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day. Each one of these breaths is an open window to the present moment, where we can check in on ourselves and practice a measure of well-deserved self-care. After all, we need to take care of ourselves just like we take care of our family, friends and co-workers.
The three exercises here can help you get started with everyday conscious breathing. Take a few moments after watching each video to become more comfortable with the breathing techniques. We hope that over time you will increasingly find the windows in your normal (and not so normal…) day, to catch your breath and feel calm focus in the present moment.
Building Breath Awareness
Before we expect any magical transformations from our breath, we have to first acknowledge it. Like anything else worth doing, conscious breathing takes practice.
Everyday Breath Awareness – Take a few moments to identify a few different qualities of your breath. They can be related to sound, movement, posture or any other quality of your inhalation or exhalation. Set a challenge for yourself to notice your breathing at five different moments during the day. It could be right after opening your eyes in the morning or before drifting off at night. A few breaths can break the tedium when you’re waiting in line and help to reset your posture when you’re sitting behind a desk all day.
Challenge yourself to notice your breath five times throughout the day.
Balancing the Breath
Now that you have learned how to pay closer attention to your breath, let’s explore how we can control the breath to help us manage our most challenging situations. Our breath is closely linked to balance in our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The inhalation is associated with the sympathetic, or action-oriented, side, while the exhalation is closely connected to the parasympathetic, or recovery side. Research has shown that breathing with inhalations and exhalations of equal duration (also called resonant or coherent breathing) can support a calm focused mindset (Streeter et al., 2017).
Building Resilience – Practice balancing your breath as you prepare for challenging situations that demand steady nerves and close attention. Over time, this exercise can help you to build resilience and bring your A-Game when you most need it!
Letting Go of the Breath
Now that you feel a little more at ease tuning into the breath and controlling it to build calm focus, you can try using the breath to relieve stress and find greater contentment. Deep breaths into the belly and their complete release send powerful messages to the brain’s alarm centers that everything is OK and there is no need for “fight or flight”. This means our bodies aren’t flooded with stress hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine that keep the cardio gas pedal pressed down and compromise our physical and cognitive functioning over time. Deep breaths in and out help us release muscular tension and quiet our most persistent worries anchored in the past or future.
Stress-Relieving Breath Tips
Start this exercise breathing in and out through the nose. The nasal passageways clean and warm the incoming air, while also controlling with more precision the volume of the breath. Imagine sipping through a straw rather than taking a big gulp.
Allow your belly to gently expand as you inhale and freely release as you exhale. This movement in the abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). This gives your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) a well-deserved break.
After you feel comfortable breathing in and out through the nose, try exhaling through the mouth and prolong the exhalation to deepen the relaxation response.
Produce an audible sigh, “aaahhhhhh…”, during the exhalation to enhance your awareness of the breath and its stress-reducing benefits.
The breath is our lifetime companion and always there when we need to hit the pause button, reflect for a moment and then proceed. We hope you are able use these conscious breathing exercises to take better care of yourself and those around you. Feel free to share with us any insights you have on your breathing journey moving forward!
Our breath is always there for us, 24,000 times a day.
References Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
Heckenberg, R., Eddy, P., Kent, S. & Wright, B. (2018) Do workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs improve physiological indices of stress? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 114, 62-71.
Streeter, C. C., P. L. Gerbarg, T. H. Whitfield, L. Owen, J. Johnston, M. M. Silveri, M. Gensler, et al. 2017. “Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 23 (3): 201-207.
Tang, Y., Holzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16 (April 2015) 213-225.