Activating the relaxation response
Most people are unaware that the breath is one of their most important real-time stress reduction resources. The capacity to belly breathe during stressful situations often means the difference between responding well and poorly.
"We all breathe, but not many of us do it well"—Cameron Aggs
“We all breathe, but not many of us do it well”, says Cameron Aggs, Clinical Psychologist and EQ Training Specialist. “Most of us expand our chest, rather than our diaphragm when we breathe in. This reduces the oxygen intake to the brain and is associated with the fight-flight reflex, as opposed to the relaxation response,” he explains. “Alternatively, slow belly breaths increase oxygen to the brain and body and bring an array of health benefits as well as helping to alleviate stress and anxiety.”
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Exercise 1: The 2 hands technique
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. As you breathe in and out, just notice which hand is moving most. Is it the top hand or the bottom hand? If you were to estimate this as a percentage for both hands (out of 100%) what percentage would you allocate to both hands?
To really reducing feelings of anxiety and stress focus on your exhalation. Breathe all the way out. Your exhalation holds the key to switching on your relaxation response at a biological level.
In an increasing appearance-driven world, a dominant message that many of us get when it comes to our belly is to ‘tuck in’. It is good to have great posture, but tucking in the tummy in all the time can lead to increased susceptibility to stress and anxiety. This is because it disconnects us from our ability to breathe diaphragmatically. It is counter cultural to allow yourself to relax, to place your wellbeing above the potential judgment of others, and to allow your belly to expand as you breathe in. Are you ready to be a renegade?
Why am I doing this?
You are learning to connect with your greatest real-time wellbeing resource: Your breath. In the first exercise you are learning to engage your diagram which sends a powerful message to your brain that all is well. In the second exercise you learn to slow it down, which reinforces the experience of safety and wellbeing. Whether you are on a train, in a meeting, or in front of a client there is always time to belly breathe!
Exercise 2: Lengthening the breath
Use the ‘Breath Pacer’ to help you get an estimation of how many seconds your average breath lasts for. This may well change over the next month or two. There is no right and wrong with this right now. Just estimate was is most true for you. Once you have a stable sense of the length of your average in-breath and out-breath rate each on the slider below.
Breath in = Deep
Wakefulness, alertness, & presence
Breath out = Long
Releasing, relaxing, letting go
Go to your phone now and set an alarm for tonight - to go off 15-30mins before bedtime. This will be your reminder to do your homework. As you hop into bed, set an alarm on your phone for 3 minutes. Lie on your back with both hands on your belly. Focus your attention on the movement of your belly as you breathe in. Notice what it feels like as you breathe out. If you like, imagine there is a balloon in your tummy which expands on your in-breath in and deflates on your out-breath. Keep your attention relaxed
As above except for instead of setting your alarm for 3-mins play the 3-minute 3R’s Meditation. Return your attention to your breathing whenever you notice you have become distracted
Getting your belly muscles moving as you breathe in creates the biological basis for feeling both relaxed and alert
By training yourself to remain mindful of your breath for 3 minutes, you are building neurological circuitry associated with focused attention. As Pediatrician Dan Siegel says, Neurons that fire together wire together.
There are neurons around the below and chest that are in constant communication with the brain regarding emotional experience. By training your attention to focus on your breath you are training yourself to be more aware of emotional experience also.
Patience is important in developing mental mastery. Just like you would never expect to be a cross-fit, yoga or weightlifting champion the first time you go to the gym, nor should you expect your ‘attentional-muscles’ to be finely tuned the first time you do a formal mindfulness practice.
Have confidence though: Every time you focus your attention on the breath for the full length of the inhalation you are doing, as Dan Harris says, a bicep curl for your brain. The more you practice the more consolidated your skills will become.
Why do these techniques work so well? Find out in the full online program.
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