Some days it feels impossible to catch your breath. For me, yesterday was such a day. With the minds of three little boys to sharpen, with the hearts of three little boys to shepherd, with clothes to be ironed, with groceries to shop for and food to prepare, with dust bunnies accumulating in every corner, with thoughts and prayers burdened for struggling friends, with year-end accounting and taxes looming on the to-do list, with commitments to keep and seemingly no time to tend to them, sometimes it just starts to feel like I can’t catch a break or a breath. Know the feeling?
This perceived struggle to breathe has nothing to do with faulty lungs, but it has everything to do with the need to relax. To let go. To find peace. To realize that all I can do is one thing at a time. To just breathe. To do what I can do and not worry about the rest. So today I’m sharing what I’ve learned about how to relax: it is absolutely essential for health, it takes conscious effort, and the easiest way to relax is to just mindfully breathe.
relaxing is absolutely essential for health.
As far back as 1948, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that two-thirds of patients who went to see a physician had symptoms caused or intensified by stress. A perusal of the stats from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey quickly shows this reality has not improved any. This invisible emotional tension causes very real changes in the body that can and often do lead to weakened immune systems and disease. The emotional centers in the brain are responsible for sending out nerve impulses to every organ in the body that affect blood flow, hormone secretions, and muscle tension. This allows our bodies to enter fight-or-flight mode when up against stressful situations in order to ensure our survival. But if the situation we’re up against is an over-loaded to-do list and not the attack of an angry bear, than we must learn to relax to avoid the unnecessary overtaxing of an otherwise healthy system. Learning to relax in the midst of mental stress or anxiety eliminates very real, negative physical responses to stress, such as increases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension.
relaxing takes conscious effort.
It may seem that kicking back on the couch to watch a movie or take a nap is relaxing, but eliciting true relaxation is a mentally active process. Ignoring stress only intensifies its effects. Intentionally counteracting stress leaves the body calm and focused.
mindful breathing is the best way to relax.
So for today, I invite you to a different kind of workout. Sweat-inducing, metabolism-boosting, muscle-building workouts have their time and purpose, but sometimes, what you need first is to do something much easier, and yet much harder. Relax.
Mindful breathing is one of the easiest ways to signal your body to relax. At the simplest level, all this means is taking the time to take slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Be sure to breathe out fully. If you don’t fully exhale, you cannot get a good, deep breath of fresh air on your next inhale and your shallow breathing will likely make you feel like you just can’t get the air you need. If you have time for a more concentrated effort at relaxing, try some of these well-known and effective breathing exercises. When you start, just try going through a routine for 5 full breaths. When you find something that relaxes and invigorates your body and mind, start working towards continuing for 5 minutes and see what a difference it makes. A word of caution: dizziness is not the goal, so be sure to work up to long breathing sessions, don’t start there. If you feel uncomfortable or light-headed, tone it down.
- breath counting – Counting the length of your inhales and exhales creates an awareness of the breath and helps the mind and body to focus on emptying out stale air and filling the lungs with clean oxygen. Find a relaxing, comfortable position (sitting is the easiest to begin with, but feel free to lie down). With the mouth closed, jaws relaxed, press the tongue up to the roof of the mouth behind your teeth. Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of 4. Hold for a count of 4. Exhale slowly through the nose for a count of 4. This is known as equal breathing. To intensify, try the same method but instead of an equal count try using a 4-7-8 pattern. Either way, breath counting is a great way to wind down any time of the day, and especially before bed.
- alternative nostril breathing – If you need to relax, but you also need a boost of energy to pull you through the day, alternative nostril breathing is a great way to find energizing calm. Again, find a relaxing, comfortable position. With the mouth closed, jaws relaxed, press the tongue up to the roof of the mouth behind your teeth. Hold your right nostril closed with your right thumb and inhale deeply through the left nostril. With a full inhale, close off the left nostril with the ring finger, releasing and exhaling through the right nostril. Continue by inhaling through the right nostril, closing it off with the right thumb, and exhaling through the left nostril.
now go breathe.
While I know mindful breathing exercises have helped me to relax and most of the time can keep me from feeling crazy, I realize that sometimes life is incredibly, unbearably hard. The best and only sure way I know to find true peace and calm is through dependence on and trust in the mighty, loving God of peace. So I’ll leave you with words of wisdom from the best source of truth.
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23
My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:26
For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. 1 Timothy 4:8
Now go enjoy some time to relax. Just breathe.