Managing the Stress Epidemic

Image: MIT News

Image: MIT News

Welcome to the new year! As we close the doors to the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we begin to reflect on the past year and cross the new-year-threshold in anticipation of renewed energy and goals.

What often fastens itself to this expectation is the increased pressure to accomplish - to make this year be THE one that makes a difference, THE one where the big promotion is achieved or the extra 20 pounds is lost. We are also in a climate of uncertainty politically and economically, are in the midst of the season of colds and flus (to boot, it is cold and dismal, at least where we are in NY), and are living in an age where social media instills a false sense of who /where/what we are supposed to be. This combination of unpredictability, seasonal bleakness and self-inflicted pressure, can certainly chip away at the new year’s feeling of optimism and put a damper on one’s mood. This type of chronic stress inevitably leads to a compromised immune system, diseases and infection, and if unattended to can potentially even lead to cancer.

There are many lifestyle changes that can be made to help alleviate stress including meditation or simply getting out into nature, but today we are going to focus on another very powerful strategy. What if we told you that you could decrease anxiety and stress AND increase performance levels by doing what we are about to tell you? What if we told you that this could also fortify your wellness reserves for free and immediately? What if we told you that you already know how, but just need a bit of guidance and practice?

The answer is in your next breath. Yes, breath work. You can literally breathe yourself into bliss. Breath work has been around for thousands of years, but now seems to have been rediscovered and with new science to back it up.


How can the breath be so powerful? Breathing techniques increase vagal tone. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve containing motor and sensory fibers. It passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen, has the widest distribution in the body and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract. Breath work has the ability to decompress all unnecessary stress. According to Dan Brule, breath work pioneer and author of Just Breathe, conscious breathing techniques have the potential to transform the quality of your life on every level and on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, dysfunctional breathing can lead to a laundry list of ailments including back pain, anxiety, lung problems, asthma and allergies, as well as performance, sleep and digestive issues.

Putting it into Practice:

Slow your breath down to about 4.5-6 breaths per minute. This slower rate of breathing alone can have a long lasting effect on heart coherence. It can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels by up to 20%, and increase oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin levels. Just 5 minutes of practicing this has a positive effect that can last for 4 hours or more. It increases alpha brain waves which are associated with stress release, focus and creativity. It is that “zen” or “zone” often achieved in meditation.

To slow the breath down, try cadence breathing. This is mindfully breathing in to a specific count and out to a specific count. The cadences can vary, i.e 1:1 or 1:2. Breathing in a 1:2 inhale to exhale ration is one of the most simple and effective way to increase vagal tone. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Hold briefly at the top. Exhale through the mouth with resistance. Do this by closing the back of your throat. The relaxation is in the exhalation. Repeat as many times as you need until the feeling of relaxation kicks in. Box breathing is another example of cadence breathing. Breath in for a count of 4, hold your breath for 4, exhale for 4 and hold for 4 before repeating the cycle. As you practice, the feeling will kick in more quickly.

Breathe Light to Breathe Right. This method is from the book The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown. The idea is that over-breathing causes a loss of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the blood and therefore oxygen cannot be effectively released for use in the muscles. There is a direct correlation between CO2 tolerance and increased performance levels, decreased anxiety and stress. To reverse over-breathing, practice very light breathing which builds up CO2 for 3-10 minutes a few times a day. Breathe Light to Breathe right breathing also has a strong way to up regulate parasympathetic tone (to get your body to relax). Another way to reduce over-breathing is to breathe in and out through the nose whenever possible.

The Wim Hof Method of breathing is definitely worth mentioning here as well. It is a proven method for bolstering immune system functioning. We use it regularly and even more extensively if we feel the onslaught of a cold coming on. HERE is a short video on how to do it.

Try one or more of these exercises at least 5 minutes a day. Work it into your day and turn it into a ritual - like showering or brushing and flossing your teeth. Remember, practice is the key to success. New Year, new breath, new stress-free you!!

PS: We will be practicing EXTENSIVE breath work during our Catskills retreat next week, January 11-13, 2019 and still have room for a few more. Breath work, mobility, great food and drinks, the coziest of accommodations and much more are all included. If you are interested, sign up NOW. For more information and to register, see HERE.

Gregg CookComment