One of the best tools you can have in your back pocket for dealing with everyday stress and tension, or with episodes of pain and discomfort, is Abdominal Breathing.
It even helps tremendously to counteract everyday, garden-variety impatience and irritation!
When you are in pain, or when you are impatient, worried, tense, or anxious, your nervous system automatically generates the stress response–the “fight / flight / freeze” effect –to protect you from further harm and danger. Or to mobilize you to ACT! To fight or flee. Once the stress response gets going, it can actually make the situation worse by increasing the physical tension or pain, which increases the stress .. . . . ..you can see where it is going! See note**
Once this stress process gets set in motion, it can be slowed down or reversed however. The nervous system can become relaxed again if you give it support –even if the pain or mental tension is not completely relieved! The cliché statement, ”just take a deep breath” has a real, biological basis and reliable results.
How to do it: Rest your hands on your stomach in a seated or lying position. As you inhale, allow the abdomen to relax, expanding outward into your hands. As you exhale, engage your abdomen muscles moderately and squeeze your navel backwards toward the spine. If you are accustomed to tightening your abdomen on inhale, you may find this a little challenging. Be patient and make sure you are not straining and tensing to create the movements. Let your breath be relaxed.
Slow down your breaths gradually. You can actually count the seconds and add one or two seconds every few breaths. Emphasize lengthening your exhalations, in order to activate and emphasize the relaxing efforts of your breathing practice. Five or ten minutes is plenty. If you only have three minutes, it will still make a positive impact. Especially if you practice this consistently over time, your nervous system will ‘learn’ to quickly relax and release tension.
**Note: Stress in itself is not all bad. Activating the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) has clear benefits to our maintaining our lives. In emergencies, it enables us to think and act quickly, flooding the body with adrenaline to escape, confront or react to danger. It raises blood pressure to help with quick response. It also keeps us ‘up’ and motivated for less intense circumstances like paying the bills and cleaning the closets. The balanced nervous system has enough engagement in both aspects (parasympathetic/PNS and sympathetic/SNS) to be able to RELAX and dial down, as well as enough reserve and resilience to maintain or activate energy and momentum. The sympathetic nervous system or “stress response” is our friend, unless . . .
Chronic ongoing stress is what causes the body and immune system to eventually wear out and break down. By constantly employing the stress hormones and the associated biochemical reactions either ongoing or at a high level in our bodies, we risk maxxing out our bodies’ ability to increase it’s energy for a new or urgent situation- the reserves have been drained.
Here is a comprehensive article from the American Psychological Association on chronic stress, and good reasons why we want (and NEED) to keep the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) strong and resilient.