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Stress less: 2-and-a-half simple reasons to take a deep breath

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Andrea gets nervous each time she steps up to the starting line with her Collie, Georgia, at agility trials.

And I say the same thing each time she sets off for their run, “Remember . . .”

“I know, I know. Breathe!” she says with only a mild air of exasperation.


1. Should I run or should I breathe?

Okay, maybe it is a bit annoying to frequently be reminded to “take a deep breath” as though it will solve the world’s problems. But try this right now: take a deep breath and let your shoulders sag on the exhale. There. Did you happen to notice how good the deep breath felt? It’s because you tend to breathe in a shallow way when you’re concentrating on something. Did you also notice that your shoulders were tense, maybe up around your ears? We carry a lot of tension in our shoulders and neck and muscle tension signals to the rest of the body that we are getting ready to do something, that we need to be alert and on guard. And all of this tells our sympathetic nervous systems to rev up which results in . . . shallow breathing (and a lot more.)

So, there we are at our computers, very much in fight-or-flight mode, as though we need to be ready in case a monster jumps out of the monitor at us.

Yuck. Who wants to be that alert all the time? (Although it’s probably good for security guards and long-distance truckers.) It really just causes more stress than we need for the task at hand.

The remedy? Just take that deep breath every once in awhile. Set your watch or phone to go off every 15 minutes or so to remind you to take a deep breath. Your body will get much-needed oxygen, your muscles will relax, and your calming parasympathetic system will kick in with at least a few minutes of physical and mental relief.


2. Take a breath, solve a problem

Being able to effectively problem-solve is an essential resiliency skill. And here’s how taking a breath can help: When you take the time to concentrate on taking a deep breath, it encourages mindfulness – the state of being aware of yourself and your surroundings. So not only is your body more relaxed by taking a breath, your mind is also more focused on the here and now and not skipping three steps ahead in a problem-solving sequence.

And – this is important – taking a breath before acting creates a pause that allows you to think through how you want to act. This can be very handy when you’re having a disagreement with someone and you need to think before saying something you might regret later.


And-a-half: Maybe breathing will solve the world’s problems

An old Coke commercial featured a song that said, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Maybe if we all practiced breathing together, we could drop our differences – even for a little while – and be in perfect harmony. The website Do As One aims for just this goal. It’s a great way to take time out and practice your breathing with others.


Epilogue: Andrea gets Georgia excited for their turn at the agility course. Then she stands up, takes a deep breath, focuses, and off they go, enjoying the moment.


Takeaway points: Even though it’s old hat to “take a deep breath” to reduce stress, it really does work! And this simple action is also a great way to increase everyday resiliency.

Do you ever find yourself in fight-or-flight mode when doing routine things? When does taking a deep breath help you the most?


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.