Despite the myriad joys the season brings, it can be a stressful time for many of us. Between shopping, cooking, travel, parties, house guests, winter storms and shorter days, the holidays pile on the stress with little regard for the continued demands of our everyday lives. Instead of feeling festive, we're often left tense, irritable and exhausted.
The good news is that we're all equipped with a natural superpower to manage stress: breathing.
By training ourselves to breathe properly and leverage the power of our respiration, we can reverse the negative physiological responses that dampen our holiday spirit. Better breathing also reduces physical tension, promotes mindfulness, and helps us rest -- all useful in decreasing the impact of holiday stress.
That said, like any superpower, if not fully understood and properly controlled, your breathing can be used against you. Because breathing is largely an autonomic activity, too many people believe they never have to think about it. However, if your posture is poor or you consistently feel stressed, chances are you've fallen into the habit of breathing high in your chest rather than fully in your lungs. This isn't a pattern you should leave on autopilot.
Left unchecked, "bad" breathing facilitates your stress response.
When you feel tense and anxious, the sympathetic fight-or-flight aspect of your nervous system turns on, quickening your breathing and increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone production. Uncontrolled, rapid, chest-oriented respiration feeds your fight-or-flight response and can actually initiate your sympathetic nervous system -- even if no other stress factors are present -- locking you in a state of breathing-induced stress.
Thankfully, you can use your superpower for good in the battle against stress by practicing diaphragmatic breathing that taps your parasympathetic "rest and restore" nervous system. In as little as 90 seconds of functional deep breathing, you can elicit a relaxation response that lowers blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormone levels.
Ready to put your super power into action?
Below, I've outlined four simple methods for dealing with stress during the holidays that also work year round. These are the same techniques I teach my professional athlete clients to help them deal with the ongoing stress of their careers. So, by following these instructions, you'll not only use your breathing like a superpower, you'll do it like a pro.
1. Turn sighs of frustration into exhales of relief
From lack of parking spaces and long shopping lines to rude relatives and travel delays, the holidays often bring up feelings of exasperation and frustration. Instead of letting those feelings bubble to the boiling point, when you find yourself sighing in frustration, take the cue from your autonomic nervous system to turn those sighs into exhales of relief. It's a simple way to tap your parasympathetic nervous system and avoid boiling over.
Spend at least 90 seconds taking long, deep breaths that emphasize your exhalations. Inhale through your nose and exhale -- like a big, elongated sigh of relief -- out of your mouth. Ideally, inhale for a five count and exhale for at least a seven count.
2. Breathe away tension
Most of the tension and fatigue we experience in our neck, shoulders and back comes from the shallow, chest-oriented breathing that accompanies stress and poor posture. That's because stress-induced breathing reduces the function of our primary respiration muscle, our diaphragm, requiring upper-body muscles to do double-duty as overworked, compensatory accessory breathing muscles.
The increased physical stress of poor breathing reinforces poor posture, leading to chronic pain, lack of mobility and even migraines. Because we take as many as 24,000 per day, stretching out upper-body tension will only provide temporary relief; we need to restore diaphragm function and ribcage position. Using proper breathing biomechanics will not only relieve tension, but also work to prevent it.
From seated or lying on your back, place your hands on the lower part of your ribs. Use inhalations to fill your lungs, externally rotating your lower ribs and expanding them out, so that your hands move away from each other. Avoid tensing and raising your shoulders.
On exhalations, completely empty your lungs, using core muscles, like an abdominal crunch, to move your lower ribs in, back and down toward your waist. As you exhale, your hands should move toward each other.
Pause slightly after exhalation with your ribcage in this position, enabling your diaphragm to fully dome in preparation for your next inhalation. Once your diaphragm begins working as your primary respiratory muscle again, your neck, shoulders and upper back should relax. For more detailed instructions and techniques, check out my article, "Breathe better to move better."
3. Connect to breathing, disconnect from anxiety
How will I get it all done? What if they don't like my gifts? Any stress caused by anxiety takes us out of the present moment.
Whether you're worrying about how to maneuver the social scene at the office Christmas party or concerned about the new year ahead, you're disconnecting yourself from the here and now. Breathing is your most profound connection to the present, since it's always happening. By turning your awareness to your breathing for just a few minutes, you can cultivate a sense of mindfulness that counters your anxiety.
Practicing a breath-awareness, mindfulness meditation doesn't require any special circumstances. You can do it anywhere simply by tuning into your breathing.
You don't need to be in a quiet space or special posture or even to close your eyes. Simply concentrate on the sensations of your breath. Slightly lengthen and deepen your inhalations and exhalations while you follow the path of your breath in through your nose, down into your lungs and back out.
Notice the expansion and contraction of your ribcage and any related sensations you can perceive. If thoughts come into your mind, push them aside and maintain your focus on your breathing as it happens, in the moment.
4. Use respiration to rest more
Rest is more essential than ever when we're under stress, but the ability to sleep well can elude us during the holidays, especially when our schedules are packed with parties, travel and house guests.
There's a reason your parasympathetic nervous system is also called the "rest and restore" system. Its primary role is to enable restoration of all the systems in your body. In addition to facilitating the restorative aspects of your autonomic system, diaphragmatic breathing can help you fall asleep easier.
It's a little-known fact that carbon dioxide acts as a natural sedative for the brain, so you can use specific breathing methods to leverage its production at bedtime.
Exhaling slowly and maintaining a long pause after exhalation slows the release of carbon dioxide levels to provide a tranquilizing effect. My "peace" pause breathing is a favorite sleep-inducing breathing technique for my MLB clients, who often have difficulty sleeping because of the intense travel and late-night schedules associated with playing 162 games over 180 days per season.
While in bed, lengthen and deepen your inhalations to a five count and your exhalations to a slow-paced seven count. After each exhalation, pause -- without taking in anymore air -- and spell out P-E-A-C-E in your mind before your next inhalation. Repeat until you fall asleep.
For more on using your breathing to sleep better, check out my article, "6 minutes of yoga for better sleep."
Give yourself the gift of calm this holiday season by discovering the enormous benefits of leveraging your stress-busting superpower.
May the Force (of your breath) be with you!