March 16, 2020
It's hard not to be stuck in a state of anxiety during the novel coronavirus pandemic. It can feel like fear and uncertainty is everywhere and that can be overwhelming.
Not all is lost, though. There are ways to help disconnect from those feelings, and one of the best methods to let go of worry is through breath work.
Anxiety triggers the alarm system in our brains, also known as the "fight-or-flight" response, which alerts us to potential danger. This alarm is useful in certain situations, but when it becomes all-encompassing, it can leave you irritable, hypervigilant and restless. (This is especially true if there's nowhere to flee except for your one-bedroom apartment.)
Several studies have shown that breath work, particularly deep breathing, significantly reduces the stress response in the body. One of the ways it does this is by stimulating the vagus nerve — the longest cranial nerve in the body, which helps regulate many important functions, including heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. Once stimulated, this nerve helps soothe the alarm and regulates your body back to a state of relaxation.
There are three breathing techniques that are particularly great if you need to reset your system to a state of peace, which include belly breathing, the 4-7-8 breathing and alternate nostril breathing.
Before we begin, it's worth noting that your breathing may be shallow at first. Don't get frustrated with yourself! Anxiety can cause shallow breathing and if you've been stuck in a heightened space for a minute, it may feel harder to reconnect to a deeper breath. Just be patient and continue focusing on your breath.
Belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, is the simplest exercise of all three. It can be done either sitting or lying down.
Close your eyes and place one hand on your belly, just under your ribs. Place the other hand over your heart. Take a deep breath through your nose and feel the air slowly rise in your belly. Breathe out fully through your mouth and feel your belly softly empty. This exercise should be done three to 10 times.
This exercise, which comes from pranayama — the yogic practice of breathing, takes a little more focus, but the reward is worth it. It's a great exercise if you need more guidance to fully release your breath on the exhale. This can be done either lying down or sitting up in a chair.
Close your eyes. You can place one hand on your belly and the other over your heart, if you choose, but it is not necessary. Inhale through your nose and softly count to four. Then, hold your breath for seven seconds. Once you count to seven, exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat three to seven times.
Alternate nostril breathing — or Nadi Shodhana pranayama — is an especially useful tool for stress. It's the most complicated of the three exercises, but the benefits speak for themselves. You can watch the video below if you need a visual. This exercise must be done sitting comfortably.