Super Easy Breathing Exercise to Help Stress, Anxiety and Sleep

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I wrote this post a while ago, long before Coronavirus kicked in, but it’s been sitting in my drafts until now, when suddenly it seemed more relevant than ever to post it.

More than a few friends recently have talked about their stress and anxiety, with levels ranging from I can’t get dressed in the morning without crying, to I feel so overwhelmed at work I can’t sleep properly at night.

So I thought I’d write a few words about a very simple breathing exercise that’s not only helped me drift off more peacefully at night, but has been scientifically proven to help increase relaxation and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

How does it work? Deep, slow and controlled breathing has been shown to activate the body’s relaxation response, leading to changes in the autonomic, parasympathetic and central nervous system.  

I’ve been doing versions of this simple breathwork exercise almost every night for many years as it’s so unbelievably simple but incredibly effective. Once you build a habit, you won’t let this one go.

The best thing is, you don’t need to carve out any extra time in the day to do it – you just do it lying in bed when you’re ready to sleep, so there’s no excuses for not having time. There’s literally nothing else to do apart from try to relax into sleep.

It’s typically the time when thoughts start racing and and stress potentially building, so have this breathing exercise ready in times of need.

Ready? It’s super simple…

  • Start by gently placing the hands on the lower abdomen to help connect with your breath.
  • You might feel your hands rising and falling with each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Breathe in and out through the nose (mouth gently closed) for a few counts of breath.
  • Start to follow each breath as it moves in and out of the body, wherever it might be – it could be in your belly, throat, chest or elsewhere.
  • After following your breath for a few rounds, start counting your in-breath.
  • Breath in: one, two, three
  • Breathe out: one, two, three
  • After a few rounds you want to start making your out-breath longer than your in breath. Do this by consciously but gently slowing down each exhalation.

So the breathwork pattern will look like:

  • Breath in: one, two, three (an in-breath comfortable for you)
  • Breath out: one, two, three, four, five

Regardless of how long your inhalation is, your can promote the relaxation response by slowing down and making the exhalation longer.

Repeat this cycle of counting a longer out-breath to in-breath four of five times. Sometimes I keep doing this until I physically feel my body untangle and unwind and quite often I’m asleep before I reach ten rounds.

An extra note…

Once you get used to extending the exhalation, you can start experimenting with a gentle hold in between the inhalation and exhalation. This is more like an internal pause rather than a forced hold of breath. It should be totally effortless.

This type of breathing workout helps to slow down your heart rate which reduces the effects of stress on the body. As a result your thoughts may calm and eventually bring the body into a quiet stillness.

Once the physical body settles, the mind follows.

Do this breath exercise whenever you feel you’re getting tense, stressed or locked in a whirl of thoughts-on-loop. Not just in bed, but any time.

A word on meditation…

If you’ve tried meditation or keen to try it but not sure where to start, start here, with the breath.

Learn how to find the breath, follow it, listen to it and watch it. This is a form of meditation in itself as there is just one point of focus, the breath. So whenever your mind begins to wander, you just bring it back to the breath.

This is one of the simplest ways to start meditating as the breath is a physical, tangible, active point of focus. Listening and watching the breath is also a great tool if you are easily distracted or find sitting in silence (trying to meditate!) too challenging.

So give it a go. Commit to just a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing every night for a few days or a week and see how it feels.

An Experiment: The Benefits of Meditation

keep calm and breath...

I didn’t mean to put meditation to the test but last January I signed up to an eight-month meditation course and thought I’d better get a head start with some practise. I’d already done a Vipassana (10-day silent meditation retreat) a few years ago but I thought the lessons were quite unsustainable, extreme and far removed from the realities of the everyday. This new meditation course promised to touch on different techniques so I was looking forward to it.

Also, at the start of the year I remember feeling utterly frazzled from too much work, strung out from a relationship breakup and tired of not getting enough rest.

So I decided to make a change and change my ways.

I decided to commit to a few minutes of meditation every night to get into the swing of things for the course, but also to help my strung out mind. I’d picked up a few basics from my yoga lessons, which are very slow and meditative with a lot of breathing work, so I started with a few basics.

Every night I committed to a very simple breathing exercise where I’d slow my breath down and follow it up and down the spinal pathway for a few minutes. Nothing fancy, just watching my breath from belly to the throat and back down again. I tried to get each breath to be long and slow and my focus was solely on the movement of the breath, nothing else.

To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. But I made a decision to commit so I stuck to it.

I did this simple breathing work for just a few minutes every night, just before lying down to go to sleep (so I’d be in my PJs) sat crossed legged on my bed, lights down low. Choosing to do it then meant I had fewer distractions or excuses.

A few weeks later…

The first thing I noticed, a few weeks later was I going to bed calmer and having a solid night’s sleep. For years, I’d gone to bed with 1001 thoughts, worries, to-do lists and anxieties racing around my head. Suddenly, I was able to fall asleep without replaying my problems over and over, and it was quite frankly, absolute bliss.

So I kept it up…

After about four weeks, I realised that I was waking up a little earlier and fresher (not like I’d been hit round the head), which generally meant I was less grumpy. But more importantly it meant I could get odd jobs done in the morning before work and tick things of my to-do list. This really helped me feel more organised and in control of things. I’ve always been the one running around like a headless chicken but now, for the first time ever, I genuinely didn’t feel like this.

I was adamant to stick to it, mainly as an experiment to see where it would take me, and how else I would feel, but also because I found myself getting addicted to the calmness I’d experience just before falling asleep. I didn’t want to go to sleep without my meditation-fix anymore – I had to have it and even looked forward to going to bed so I could doze off like a baby.

Within a few months I felt like life was running a little more smoothly. Looming deadlines and workload building up no longer filled me with horror, panic or dread. I just got on with things and got them done with far less drama.

What happened next… 

I started to mix up my breathing exercise with another (very simple) breathing exercise, mainly for a bit of variety. This one I could do lying down in bed.

I lie horizontal in bed, as though ready for sleep – but not fall asleep – and do a three-part breathing exercise. It starts with a slow, deep inhalation from the belly, where the belly expands and rises. Then move the breath moves up towards the rib cage and lungs. There, I expand the rib cage and lungs before finally moving the breath up towards the throat or collar bone where I feel a slight pressure in the throat area from the passing breath. Then I move the breath, carefully and mindfully back down to the belly area and start over again.

I would do this three or four times, with the aim of doing ten but always fall asleep before. This breathing exercise, called the complete yogic breath, is so calming and relaxing it’s the best way to nod off, EVER.

It’s so deeply restorative and dare I say, has saved my sanity over the last year or so.

Getting the body into a truly relaxed state just before sleep seems to be the key for a good night’s rest. Sometimes I’m up late working, glued to my phone, iPad or computer (like now!) so tumbling into bed alert and awake with adrenalin is far from ideal.

Since learning and using the yogic breath, I fall asleep within a few minutes, if not in a flash, almost every night without fail.

One year one… 

I can’t quite believe I kept it up but I’m so pleased I did because I can now say the benefits of meditation ( or at least regular deep breathing) really do exist. It’s not just talk. I still feel the same calming, restorative effects on the physical body and mind as before but now I feel more balanced in other aspects of my life too.

I don’t spend my days in a hectic flap, I don’t worry about trivial things as much and I definitely don’t get stressed as easily as I used to. I also think it’s had a impact on my positivity; I feel like I’m more tolerant, perhaps a bit more understanding, even a little bit nicer (although I’ve always been perfectly pleasant!) but I don’t snap as quickly or get as frustrated. Everything feels more manageable.

Of course, there have been times when I really can’t be bothered to meditate but I just think of the benefits and persuade myself to do just one or two minutes at least. Now that it’s past midnight, it’s time I wrapped up this mega post. I’m looking forward to my few minutes of rest before sleep where I can switch off from the world and just watch my breath until it’s slowed right down and I’m ready to nod off.

Night all.