When you’re internally freaking out about something, there’s no shortage of advice about how to handle it: sniff some lavender oil, pop some CBD oil under your tongue, roll out your yoga mat. And while all of these things have merit, holistic healer Ashley Neese is here to tell you that calming your nervous system can be even simpler than that. All you have to do, she says, is breathe.
Okay, well there’s a little more to it than that: You have to breathe with intention, which isn’t how we, as humans, generally operate. Think about the last time you paid any attention to your respiration, outside of a workout or yoga class. It was probably a long time ago, if ever, right?
“We are out of touch with our breath because we’re out of touch with our bodies,” says Neese, author of How to Breathe: 25 Simple Practices for Calm, Joy, and Resilience. There are lots of things that cause this detachment, she adds, including chronic stress, trauma, illness, negative body image, and disconnection from nature.
But when we’re mindful of how we’re breathing, it can completely change our physical and emotional state—and fast. As Neese explains in How to Breathe, slowing your breathing rate in times of stress sends a message to your brain that everything is cool. As such, it can help your body transition from fight-or-flight mode into a state of greater peace, even if your external circumstances are still chaotic. And that’s not the only benefit of this breathwork. Neese adds that flooding our cells with oxygen may help boost immunity and, according to yogic texts, may support our detoxification pathways. Plus, there are believed to be spiritual benefits of breathing. “Breathwork opens the heart by balancing our energy centers, expands relational intelligence, and inspires creativity,” she says.
“We are out of touch with our breath because we’re out of touch with our bodies.”—Ashley Neese, holistic healer
For best results, Neese recommends practicing breathwork on the regular, and not just in high-stress situations. “Our nervous systems learn through repetition. Some of the greatest benefits of a consistent and long-term breathwork practice are the ability to emotionally self-regulate and shift your state so that you can live with more alignment, ease, and joy,” she says. In other words, it can keep you from losing your cool in the first place. (Her preferred practice: Set a timer for several times in a day, and when it goes off, breathe in and out slowly through the nose five times before returning to what you were doing.)
But for those times when you do find yourself in need of an extra-strength chill pill—in the throes of insomnia, first-date jitters, or work-related anxiety, perhaps—there’s one breathing exercise for stress Neese recommends above all others: the five-breath reset. “It’s great when you feel emotionally or mentally overloaded and need a quick time out,” she says.
Here’s how to calm down using the five-breath reset:
- Set a quick intention. (E.g.: “I intend to relax.”)
- Inhale through your nose as long as you can without discomfort.
- Exhale as long as possible through your mouth.
- Repeat five times and notice the difference.
I know, it almost sounds too simple to actually work. But I tried the five-breath reset to calm my nerves before a big meeting, and it was a remarkably effective method for averting a full-blown anxiety attack. The best part is that it’s a super-quick stress-relieving tool that can be used anytime, anywhere—even in situations where it would be weird to do jumping jacks or pull out an amethyst crystal. All hail the inhale and exhale.
Turns out you can actually be stressed without knowing it—so you may as well go ahead and book that adventure vacation, because it can totally help.
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