breathe to release anxiety

5 Breath-Based Body Hacks to Increase Calm and Release Anxiety

I’m an anxious person.

Highly anxious.

As a result, I’ve had to learn quick and easy body hacks so I can release stress and return to calm as seamlessly as possible.

I’ve uncovered a ton these. Some use our body, others our thoughts and yet others our internal sensations. There are lots of different ways, it turns out to achieve a sense of calm.

The key is to experiment and find the ones that work for you.

5 Breath-Based Body Hacks to Increase Calm and Reduce Anxiety

Below are 5 ways you can calm yourself using the breath. Practice them at a time of relative ease (I do them in the morning) so that you can access them more quickly and automatically during times of stress.

1. Focus on your breath

We spend a lot of our time lost in thought.

Recent research shows that our mind wanders approximately 50% of the time. And that often, because of the negativity bias of the brain, our wandering thoughts are worrying ones.

There is a reason why meditation so often uses the breath as an anchor. The breath is the one thing that’s always happening now.

In the present.

And that shift in awareness from our future or past-oriented thoughts towards the present moment (generally free of any immediate threat) can help calm us.

Here’s how to practice focussing on breath:

  • Bring your awareness to your breath.
  • Let your awareness rest wherever you feel your breath most strongly. It may be your nostrils, your chest or your belly.
  • There is no need to change the breath. Simply rest your attention on your breath.
  • When the mind wanders away from the breath, bring it back
  • Repeat

2. Breathe into your belly

According to Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical researcher and breath-training expert, many of us are chest breathers.

When we breathe this way (chronic neck and shoulder pain can be a clue), we only use the top part of our lungs and avoid recruiting the full power of our diaphragm muscle.

Dr Vranich calls this breathing to survive rather than thrive.

Simply redirecting our breath to our belly can help restore energy and vitality in the body. To practice, try this

  • Sit and close your eyes
  • Bring your awareness to your breath without changing it. First notice where you tend to breathe.
  • Shift your attention to your belly, if it’s not there already. Placing a hand on top of your navel can help.
  • Breathe into your belly. As you inhale your hand should go out. As you exhale your hand should go in
  • Imagine you can fill all four sides of your belly with your breath. Feel your belly expand in the front, the sides and fill the space in the back of your belly as well.

3. Take full regular breaths

Not only do we often breathe into our chests, but we often take shallow and incomplete breaths, or breathe irregularly, holding our breath throughout the day.

This can create an imbalance in our carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange, throwing off our PH balance and further increasing our anxiety.

To help increase calm and release stress, practice taking full and regular breaths.

Try the following

  • Inhale for a count of 4
  • Hold for 1
  • Inhale a little more. It’s surprising to see how much more air you can usually inhale
  • Exhale for a count of 4
  • Hold for 1
  • Exhale a little more. Again you can usually exhale more
  • Repeat

4. Take a longer exhale

To fully appreciate the importance of the exhale, you need to learn a little bit about the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and the longest in the body. Its called the wandering nerve because it pretty much goes everywhere, innervating the structures of the face, the eyes, the throat, heart, lungs and digestive organs.

Beyond other functions, the vagus nerve plays a key role in our autonomic nervous system, responsible primarily for shifting ourselves out of fight or flight into one of two other branches of our parasympathetic nervous system. When our vagus nerve is toned we can more easily shift into our social engagement system, where we are relaxed, engaged and connected with the world and people around us.

And one of the simplest ways to stimulate the vagus nerve is the through a longer exhale.

To practice, try the following:

  • Inhale for a count of 2
  • Hold for 2
  • Exhale for a count of 4
  • Hold for 2
  • Repeat

5. Visualize your hara

In various contemplative traditions the belly is an area of sacred importance.

In the yogic chakra system, the lower three chakras are associated with stability, safety and confidence

And in the japanese aikido tradition the belly is called hara which also means true nature.

Beyond connecting with the breath that lives in the belly, we can also practice connecting with the energetic source of calm, resiliency and strength that lives in the centre of our body.

Try the following practice:

  • Breathe into the belly as you did in practice number one
  • Sense into the centre of your belly. That space between the navel, your back and your left and right side. Let your attention rest there
  • Cultivate a feeling of strength, calm and resiliency as you breathe into the centre of your body. This is as easy (and as difficult) as it sounds. Practice feeling calm and strong as you breathe into the centre of your belly. Actually generate those feelings for yourself.
  • Try visualizing an energetic source of resiliency and calm that comes from the centre of your body. Select an image that supports you. A lotus flower, a joyful buddha or a disco dancing diva. Whatever works for you.
  • Check in with this area often throughout the day, reminding yourself that a sense of calm and ease can be found within

When it comes to anxiety, I fully believe there are tools that can work for all of us. However, what works for me, may not work for you. I encourage you to adopt an attitude of curiosity and compassion. Try some or all of the ideas above. And if none of those work, please don’t give up. There are lots of other ways, including contemplative and traditional, to support yourself through anxiety.

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