Using Your Breath for Stress Relief

This is the final Monday of my Stress-free September series. This morning I led a meditation where we talked about using your breath for stress relief. It is an excellent tool for grounding you in the moment and relieving stress in the body. You can listen here:

What happens in the body when you feel stress?

A hormonal cascade is activated which results in the production of cortisol and adrenaline. These act on the body to increase your respiratory rate (and more). 

(Graphic Courtesy of

One way to counteract this rapid breathing and its ill effects is to be more present with your breathing in times when you feel stress.

I have previously written about 2 breathing techniques that may be helpful:

4-7-8 breathing

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Another useful technique is prolonging your exhale compared to your inhale. So for instance: breath in to the count of 4, then extend your exhale to the count of 8.  Extending the exhalation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system involved in calming the body…decreasing your respiratory rate and slowing your heart rate. 

By prolonging your exhale, you send a message to the brain to calm down and relax. You can therefore disrupt the hormonal cascade that is resulting in the physiological effects of stress.

The next time you feel stressed, I hope using your breath for stress relief is at the forefront of your mind.

Conscious breathing with awareness and intent dissolves your stress.

Stress-Free September: Feeling A Negative Emotion

When was the last time you felt stressed?

And what did you do with that stress?

Most people are inclined to…

Bury it. 

Ignore it.

Buffer it with food, alcohol, shopping…

Although these actions may help you feel better temporarily, they will not help you to recognize and process stress in a healthy way.

“Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’.”

Eckhart Tolle

In today’s group meditation, I discussed steps  for processing stress in the moment.

Being here now is the key to stress relief! 

Here are the steps I use to process stress in the here and now (Feel free to screenshot this and save as a favorite on your phone for when stress arises):

  • Close your eyes.
  • Focus on your breath.
  • Take note, “I feel stress right now.”
  • Move towards it and get to know it, like a friend.
  • Try not to resist the feeling.
  • Where do you feel it in the body?
  • How does it feel?
  • Go to that part of your body (out of your head) and notice:
  • The color of stress
  • The shape
  • The texture
  • The feeling
  • Whether it is constant or changing
  • Does it have fast or slow vibrations?
  • By getting to know the stress, you are taking the wind out of it’s sails.

Did you know that on average, a negative emotion will only last for 90 seconds in the body? By processing stress in the moment, you can move through this negative feeling and then move on with your day.

There is nothing you can’t handle right now.

Coping with Scanxiety Through Mindfulness

You know that familiar feeling that arises when your next CT scan is coming up?

A nervous tension in the pit of your stomach…

Heart racing…

Palms sweating…

Maybe your mind is completely engulfed in all the worst possible outcomes.

The cancer is back!

The current treatment is not working! 

The mass is growing!

There are new metastases in my lungs, I just know it!

This, my friends, is scanxiety, or Scan-Associated Distress. And according to this study, upwards of 80% of patients with cancer experience this.

You are not alone. 

But, this is no way to LIVE

When your mind hauls off on these worst case scenario tangents, you are living in thoughts based in the future and creating negative feelings and physical effects on your body that you experience today. 

So what can you do when you experience this type of stress?

Practice grounding yourself in the present moment. Here are some ideas:

  • Try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. I previously wrote a blog on this here. This allows you to use your 5 senses to bring your mind’s current experience back to the present moment and away from all those pesky thoughts.
  • Be with nature. It sounds like tree-hugging hippy advice, but in all seriousness, if you can go outside and be with a tree, just do it. Watch the gentle movement of the leaves and branches. Inhale deeply the scent. Works every time.
  • Use a scent to ground you. I like to dab a little bit of lavender essential oil on my wrist and deeply inhale this calming scent when I begin to feel stress. 
  • Set aside some designated time for worrying. From 7:30 pm-8:00pm today, I worry. When worries come up outside of that window, redirect.
  • Exercise! This will get your endorphins flowing allowing you to feel better. In particular, yoga may be particularly useful because of the added mindfulness practice associated. But honestly, do a type of exercise that you enjoy.
  • Practicing regular mindfulness meditation will also allow you to more easily recognize the negative thought pattern and return your awareness to the current moment.

The present moment is your place of healing and peace.

How to Decrease Stress

I’m sure you’ve wondered at some point in your life, how can I decrease my stress level?

Unfortunately, it seems a common problem in modern society to be chronically plagued with high-stress levels.

What happens in your body when you experience stress?

A stressful event leads to thoughts that create biochemical changes in the body’s chemistry. The primitive brain reacts instinctively to stressful thoughts, releasing hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These act on the body to create a heightened state of awareness. Blood pressure rises. Heart rate increases. The immune system and digestive systems are suppressed. In short, the body enters a physical state of stress. 

These protective reflexive changes in body chemistry would be helpful to us if we were actually in physical danger. But in modern times, often our stresses are often more chronic, subtle issues that are ever-present in our lives–

We must meet this deadline.

We must face this cancer diagnosis.

We must be the perfect mom/dad/friend/daughter/son/husband/wife. 

Living in a chronic state of high stress is damaging to our psyche and our bodies. 

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reverse chronic stress.

For one, you can pay attention to the thoughts you have that create the stress in the first place. Check in with your mind and notice the thoughts.

Second, you can practice detaching from the stressful thoughts that create this toxic biochemistry. To do so, it’s best not to argue or struggle against the thoughts. Instead of identifying with the constant stream of thoughts going on in the mind, try instead to identify with the observer of those thoughts. You get a lot of practice doing this in meditation.

Third, bring in your higher brain, the cortex, responsible for rational thinking to help recognize the negative stressful thought pattern and offer yourself an alternative thought. For example, one I find helpful is “My mind is offering these stressful thoughts, but I know my true self is calm.” 

Lastly, regular meditation can help you become more in touch with the true essence of yourself, as well as the present moment. Our mind’s natural state is calm, and it wants to return to that state if we can only learn to get out of our own way. The trick is giving up the struggle and surrendering to what is. 

I invite you to join me this week in practicing this centering thought when you notice stress arising:

“I choose calm when faced with stress.”

Meditation for Stress Relief

This month Circle of Hope is featuring “Stress-free September.” I will be hosting a series of mindfulness meditation group sessions, as well as weekly blog posts, with the theme of living a more stress-free life. Check the website for details:

What is stress?

 a physical, mental or emotional factor that results in bodily and/or mental tension due to the perception that it is overwhelming.

The key is, your perception is a huge part of the existence of stress in your life.

What are some ways that mindfulness can help you cope with stress?

  1. I have previously written about the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tools called the “thought download” and the “thought model.” You can brush up on that here.

These are very useful tools for helping you cope with stress.

Step one:

You can do a thought download to basically do a mind dump onto a piece of paper. It sometimes helps to just get all the thoughts off your chest.

Step two:

Then, you can look through the thought download and identify the thoughts that are leading to your stressful state of being. 

The goal is to identify how you perceive a stressful situation, so that you can work through alternative ways of thinking.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have cancer and are receiving chemotherapy.  If you are persistently having the thought “Chemotherapy is going to make me nauseous, and I dread throwing up,” this may create a stressful hormonal state in your body that may actually contribute to the event’s occurrence. 

Current model:

Circumstance: chemotherapy

Thought: This is going to make me nauseous.

Feeling: dread

Action: perseverate over nausea, increase stress hormones

Result: Create physical and mental conditions conducive to experiencing nausea.

Notice your pattern of thinking.

Step three:

Next, you tweak the thought line in your model. It may look something like this:

New model:

Circumstance: chemotherapy

Thought: This powerful medicine is going to work only on the cancer cells, and leave my normal body cells untouched.

Feeling: optimistic

Action: lowered stress state of the body

Result: Create conditions conducive to wellness, despite therapy.

The trick is, when designing your new model, you must choose a new thought that is actually believable to you.

Now, does this mean that you can mitigate every potential negative effect of your treatment through your mind? That remains to be seen, but we do know that maintaining a positive attitude through the treatment of cancer has positive effects on the outcome. (You should still follow all of the advice of your medical team 😉 )

2. Another tool that is helpful to relieve stress is daily meditation. Meditation promotes your ability to focus more on this moment, rather than times past or times in the future.

Your mind and body are not distinct. Many people speak of the mind-body connection, but this underestimates the true interconnectedness of these two realms. More accurately, we can refer instead to the bodymind. The mind and body are one and intimately affect one another. 

By working on our mind’s ability to live in the present moment through practicing mindfulness meditation, we increase our ability to respond and react to stressors in our lives in a less reactive manner. We build the skill of adjusting and resetting quickly in the face of stress. This stabilizes stress hormones.

Try it today: when something stressful comes up, allow the stressful thoughts to pass just like you do during meditation, and instead focus your attention on your slow, deep breathing in this present moment.

You have the resilience and resources to handle any situation.