Feeling stressed? Let out a long slow breath, breathe in and breathe out another long slow breath. As you are breathing, look around you. Find something beautiful to rest your gaze upon: a tree out the window, a pet, a photograph on your desk. Breathe out slowly again.
In 1975 Dr. Herbert Benson wrote a book called The Relaxation Response. A professor at Harvard University Medical School, Dr. Benson sought to put a secular name to the physiological state achieved with meditation. Meditation was not a comfortable word in the 1970’s; many people felt it had particular religious connotations. Dr. Benson sought to share the physical benefits of intentional breathing and what we now call “mindfulness” with everyone, regardless of religious affiliation.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, brought mindfulness and meditation to cardiac patients as part of their rehabilitation programs. Suddenly working-class Boston men were learning how to slow their breathing, focus on the present and intentionally relax their nervous systems. Over the years his positive results have brought his tools to the masses and now meditation and mindfulness practices are regular household tools.
So how does this work?
When we need to run or fight our autonomic nervous system tells us to pull our shoulders up, breathe with our chest and crouch. Also, if we are in that posture, the brain thinks we are still in a dangerous situation, so we continue to breathe shorter, shallower chest breaths. If we can’t resolve the stressful situation we stay frightened, and if we have any areas of pain in the body the pain is increased. The more fear we have, the more stressed and tense we remain, and we feel more pain.
If we notice that we have become stuck in the fear/tension/pain cycle we can use belly breathing to get out of it. Long exhales followed by deep belly breaths tell the autonomic system that we are safe enough to breathe a little deeper so we relax a little more, the fear or anxiety become less and we can breathe a little slower and a little deeper. We move into the relaxed breathing/safe feeling/less pain cycle.
Most people find it easier to move from the fear/tension /pain cycle by counting their breaths or focusing on something beautiful in their environment. They are being mindful of their present situation. They are brought back into the present moment and out of worries for the future or concerns about the past. The body can become relaxed and the mind will follow.