Practice this breathing exercise for stress twice a day, every day, and you'll feel cool as a cucumber when life throws you a curveball.

By Pamela O'Brien
November 17, 2020
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Sweaty palms, racing heart, and shaking hands seem like inevitable physical responses to stress, whether it be a deadline at work or a performance at a karaoke bar. But turns out, you can control how your body responds to stress — and it all starts with your heart, says Leah Lagos, Psy.D., B.C.B., a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of the book Heart Breath Mind (Buy It, $16, bookshop.org).

Curious? Here, Lagos reveals the breathing exercise for stress that will help you feel calmer in challenging times.

You’ve found that it's possible to train your body to reduce stress. How?

"First, it’s helpful to understand what stress does to you physiologically. Your heart rate jumps up, and that sends a signal to your brain to shift into a fight-or-flight mode. Your muscles tighten, and your decision-making is impaired. That’s where heart rate variability (HRV) comes in, which is the time between one heartbeat and another. A strong, steady HRV with more time between each heartbeat improves your ability to manage stress.

"How you breathe affects your HRV. When you inhale, your heart rate goes up, and when you exhale, it goes down. Researchers I work with at Rutgers have found that a systematic process of breathing for 20 minutes twice a day at a pace that’s known as your resonant, or ideal, frequency — about six breaths per minute — can moderate stress, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and strengthen your HRV. That means the next time something stressful happens, you can let go of it and move forward much faster, because you’ve trained your body to respond in this new way. The science shows that this method improves your mood, enhances focus, helps you sleep better, boosts energy, and makes you more resilient overall." (Related: What I Learned from Trying an At-Home Stress Test)

How do you do this breathing exercise for stress?

"What works for most people is to inhale for four seconds and exhale for six seconds with no pause in between. Start by breathing at this rate for two minutes (set a timer). Begin by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through pursed lips as if you’re blowing on hot food. As you mentally count four seconds in, six seconds out, focus on the sensation of air flowing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

When you’re done, take stock of how you feel. Many people say they are less anxious and more alert. Work your way up to doing this breathing for 20 minutes twice a day, and your baseline heartbeat will be lower, which means your heart won’t have to work as hard, making it — and you — healthier overall." (BTW, even Tracee Ellis Ross is a fan of using breathing exercises to reduce stress.)

Does exercise influence this process at all?

"It does. Actually, it’s a two-way street. Exercise strengthens your HRV, and the breathing process helps you exercise. Since your heart isn’t working as hard, you’re able to engage in the same level of physical activity with less effort. The researchers at Rutgers have looked into this, and they’ve theorized that for those who practice the 20-minute, twice-a-day breathing technique, there is a second wind effect with exercise, and more oxygen is being delivered to those people’s muscles. That means they can go longer and stronger."

Does your brain benefit from this breathing exercise for stress, too?

"Yes. You’re sending more oxygen and blood flow to your brain when you do each 20-minute session of breathing. You’ll notice greater clarity and more concentration and focus. You’ll be better able to make objective decisions without unwelcome emotions getting in the way. I believe it could maybe even help keep your brain sharp as you age — in fact, that’s our next area of HRV research."

What about people think they don't have time?

"Research shows that the combined 40 minutes of breathing a day are the key to rewiring your body’s stress response. You won’t get the full range of benefits otherwise. Consider the time you’ll save, and how good you’ll feel, when you can let go of stress faster and feel calmer, more confident, and in control, especially in these uncertain times. The payoff is pretty great."

Shape Magazine, November 2020 issue

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