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Stress Relief: Just a Breathe Away

Have you forgotten how to breathe right?

Self-Care & Mental Health

Take a deep breath. As you do, does your stomach go in, your chest expand or your shoulders go up? If so, you're breathing wrong.

Like many adults, you may have "forgotten" the right way to breathe, says Peter C. Trask, Ph.D., at the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, Brown Medical School/The Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI. You pull in air through your chest, instead of through your stomach. When you chest breathe, you become tense, develop muscle fatigue, shortness of breath and may even increase feelings of anxiety.

Trask helps patients re-learn the right way to breathe, called deep abdominal—or diaphragmatic—breathing. It brings more oxygen into your blood and muscles, relieving the effects of stress and lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.

"That's the way you should breathe all the time," says Trask.

You can practice deep abdominal breathing throughout the day, while sitting up straight, standing or lying down. Repeat this cycle three or four times, several times a day, to make it a habit:

  • Place your hands on your stomach. This will let you know if you're breathing correctly.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, letting your stomach expand as much as possible. Hold for five to 10 seconds.
  • Your chest, rib cage and shoulders should not move at all.
  • Exhale slowly, through pursed lips. Feel your stomach deflate.
  • When you've exhaled fully, begin the cycle again.

Progressive muscle relaxation will also help you de-stress by tensing, then releasing, muscles. Find a quiet room to perform the upper body progressive relaxation below.

In each step, contract your muscles as hard as possible, then relax. Breathe deeply with each action:

  • Get comfortable on a couch, chair or on the floor—arms at your sides and legs uncrossed. Shake out your arms and legs.
  • Take several deep abdominal breaths (see above exercise).
  • Close your eyes.
  • Clench your fists. Relax.
  • Bend both elbows hard. Relax.
  • Raise your eyebrows. Smooth forehead. Relax.
  • Squint your eyes. Wrinkle nose. Relax.
  • Bring teeth together; pull back corners of mouth. Relax.
  • Pull your chin to chest. Relax.
  • Press head back against chair, bed or floor. Relax.
  • Take a deep breath and hold while putting your shoulder blades together. Exhale slowly. Relax.
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