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Take a Breather: Breathing Techniques for Managing Stress and Anxiety

By Dr Ela Manga

30 March 2020

We find ourselves in the midst of one of the greatest challenges that humanity has ever had to face. It is a time of great uncertainty and vulnerability for us all. It is normal to experience waves of anxiety, sadness and fear during this time. Besides the concerns related to our health, the stress of the broader implications of the Covid19 pandemic can be overwhelming.

However, this experience is also an invitation to turn our attention inwards, to relax and learn how to support the body’s incredible ability to heal itself. We are being given the opportunity to tap into our inner resources, to innovate and respond to the challenges that face us with compassion and resilience.

In order to this, we need some tools that can support us through this challenge. The most practical and simple way to do this is through bringing awareness to our breath and consciously breathing in ways that will help us to stay calm, boost the immune system, ride the waves of emotion and stay healthy.

The following four breathing techniques can be used to support you not only during this time, but also for coping with stress or anxiety at any time of your life.

1. Feeling Safe: Breath Awareness

This breath awareness technique helps to build self-awareness and mental strength and to regain a sense of calm. We don’t usually think about the breath, but the simple act of paying attention to it has a very calming effect.

During this exercise, the turbulence of your mind will settle, and you will feel calmer. You may be able to observe your mental and emotional experiences without getting caught up in them.

This practice can also serve as a foundation for meditation.

How to practice:

Take a few moments to settle into a comfortable position.

If you are sitting in your chair, sit back without slouching, relaxing your neck and shoulders, uncross your legs and place your hands on your lap with your palms facing upwards.

Begin with a soft exhale, letting go of any stress, tension and worry.

Do this again, this time relaxing the back of your neck and shoulders, and if you feel comfortable you can close your eyes

Breathe normally without changing or controlling the breath, simply noticing that you are breathing and feeling the breath in your nostrils.

See if you can notice that as you inhale the air feels cooler in your nostrils and that as you exhale, it feels warmer.

Still staying with natural breathing, move your attention to your belly and feel how your belly rises and falls as you inhale and exhale.

See if you can hold your attention here, one breath at a time.

If thoughts are flooding in and your mind feels busy and distracted, that’s perfectly normal; don’t be hard on yourself and push the thought away, just notice what the thought is and come back to feeling the breathing in your belly.

As you start to notice the breath, you might notice where you are holding tension in the body. Just feel like you are relaxing those parts.

Sometimes you might feel feelings coming up, just let them come to the surface, and come back to the breath.

The feeling of the breath in your belly is your safe space, it brings a feeling of peace and stillness.

Thoughts can come, thoughts can go, they are not you.

Emotions can come, emotions can go, they are not you.

The breath is giving you life, strength and peace.

Now, on your own, just practice feeling the breath and practice coming back when the mind wanders.

When you are ready, slowly come back and open your eyes, still keeping the feeling of peace with you and knowing that the feeling is always there right inside you and that you can connect to it with your breath.

When to practice: Every morning for 5 minutes, gradually building up to 15-20 mins.

2. Feeling overwhelmed: Humming Bee Breath

The world is feeling pretty noisy right now. We are being bombarded with information, scary stories and varying opinions and even the noise of our own minds.

This is our favourite practice to quieten down all the noise and to create a feeling stillness and centering within. It reconnects the body and brain and a sends calming signals to the brain from the vocal cords through the vagus nerve.

How to practice:

Find a comfortable position. Take a deep inhale through the nose.

Then close off your ears with your thumbs and gently cup your fingers over your eyes without applying pressure. Then hum for a long as you can until you feel you’ve run out of air.

Repeat 6-8 times, each time taking long inhales through the nose and humming out.

After the last cycle, just relax to normal breathing, keeping your eyes closed and enjoy the sensations.

When to practice: This can be done daily as part of a daily relaxation time, or you can also take time out to spend a few minutes on it whenever you are feeling stressed.

3. For alleviating panic and building healthy lungs: Box breathing

This technique is really helpful for strengthening the lungs and giving you a sense of calm and control. It can be used if you are in a state of panic or finding it particularly hard to breathe during a respiratory infection. It also helps to improve oxygen delivery to the cells.

For this practice, you will breathe slowly through the nose and break the breathing cycle into 4 parts so that it looks like a box.

How to practice:

During this practice you will breathe in 4 stages and give the same amount of time to each stage. You will follow a simple 4-stage rhythm of inhale – pause – exhale – pause.

You can start by inhaling slowly for a count of 4, but if that is too long, you can reduce it to what is comfortable for you.

  1. Inhale slowly for a count of 4
  2. Pause for a count of 4
  3. Exhale slowly for a count of 4
  4. Pause again for a count of 4

Repeat 6 times.

If you feel you have more lung capacity. you can increase the count to 5 or 6.

You can build up to more than 6 cycles if you like.

When to practice: This can be done daily as part of a daily relaxation time, or you can also take time out to spend a few minutes on it whenever you are feeling stressed.

4. Breathing with the family: Three Breaths of Blessings

Coronavirus has given us the opportunity to reconnect with our families. Why not use this time to create beautiful and meaningful family rituals that can continue even when this virus has passed.

This exercise introduces conscious slow breathing before a meal and helps you as a family to connect to each other.

How to practice:

As you sit down together at the dinner table, light a candle.

Take 3 deep long breaths together as a family.

Breath #1 is for yourself, to bring yourself into your body, to wake up your senses and into the present and deactivate the stress response.

Breath #2 is to connect as a family, to feel the sense of gratitude for each other.

Breath #3 is for everyone on the planet who is also needing some support and for all the people that helped to bring this meal to you, from the farmworker to the truck driver to the people at the grocery store.

Conscious slow breathing before a meal will also deactivate the stress response and switch on your body’s “rest and digest” mode so that you optimise your digestive function and help your body to assimilate the nutrients from your meal.

When to practice: Daily, at the start of the family meal together.

Dr Ela Manga is a medical doctor with a special interest in mind-body medicine, energy management and burnout. She is also the founder of Breathwork Africa, an organisation that is committed to sharing the science of conscious breathing as a tool for supporting physical and emotional health.

For more information please contact:

Dr Ela Manga
Integrated Medical Practitioner
Telephone: +27 82 330 6915
Email: ela@drelamanga.com

Breathwork Africa
Telephone: +27 82 561 3637

Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.