Catherine Spann, Ph.D.
Breath-Based Stress Reduction Plan (Workbook Included!)
Updated: May 22, 2020
Here's the deal. We all live with stress and uncertainty. Unfortunately, we can't change the world around us and we can't always change the situations where we find ourselves. So, how you respond to and manage the stress in your life makes all the difference.
The good news is that science has shown us wonderful techniques to handle stress and manage difficult emotions. I'm here to teach you one of those techniques: using your breath and self-reflection to improve your life.
The other good news is that I created a workbook for you to download, edit, print, make copies, and keep forever. Sound good?
STEP 1: SELF-ASSESSMENT
Before you jump into the breathing practices, it is important to take a step back and reflect on your life, your current challenges, and your motivation for taking action.
Answer the following questions to assess your current situation:
What are the leading sources of stress in your life at this moment? (e.g., work, family, money, health, etc).
In what ways do you currently cope with stress and difficult emotions? (e.g., watch TV, exercise, knit, talk to friends, get on social media, etc.)
To what extent do you think your current coping mechanisms positively affect your body and mind? Are there any you could consider removing or substantially reducing?
Can you identify any barriers that have kept you from taking action to reduce your stress? (i.e., lack of resources, no time, you don't know where to start, etc.)
STEP 2: EDUCATE YOURSELF
If you're going to work on reducing your stress through breathing, you should be knowledgable about how breathing positively affects the mind and body to restore balance and promote resilience. Now you'll have an educated response when people ask you why you're so calm, cool, and collected.
The Stress Response
Warning: Things are about to get nerdy.
Your nervous system consists of a Central Nervous System (your brain and spinal cord) and a Peripheral Nervous System (everything outside of your brain and spinal cord). One portion of the Peripheral Nervous System is the Autonomic Nervous System which acts largely unconsciously (meaning we aren't actively thinking about it) and controls things like breathing, heart rate, digestion, etc. The Autonomic Nervous System is the primary controller of the Stress Response.
The Autonomic Nervous System contains to two systems that primarily make up the Stress Response: (1) the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and (2) the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
The SNS is responsible for the body's "fight-flight-freeze" response. This causes the physical symptoms you feel when you're stressed or nervous (e.g., sweaty palms, racing heart, tunnel vision). The PNS, on the other hand, is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" response. Bodily activities like sexual arousal (get it girl!), digestion, and low heart rate occur when the PNS is dominating. The SNS and PNS work together to keep you balanced.
The Problem: Imbalance of the Stress Response System
Think about how much you experience little bouts of stress every day. Your phone buzzes with text messages and emails, news outlets inundate us with reports of rising political tension and global conflict, your children experience problems at school, you worry about money, the list goes on. The SNS is active when this happens. Usually, this is a good thing. Our bodies are motivated by these stressors to become alert and take action. Chronic stress, however, happens when we are keeping ourselves in a heightened state of stress. When we are constantly experiencing stressors, the SNS is dominating and the PNS has no chance to restore the body. This can lead to chronic overactivity of the SNS and chronic under-activity of the PNS. Among other problems, this can ultimately lead to higher inflammation, which puts you at higher risk for disease and an unhealthier life.
The Solution: Restoring Balance
Remember when I mentioned the Autonomic Nervous System (which contains the SNS and PNS) works unconsciously to control things like breathing? Turns out, breathing can be both entirely unconscious or entirely conscious. Breathing is the one autonomic function that you can control. This means you can control your stress response by controlling how you breathe.
Controlled breathing is a safe and simple way to activate the PNS. For those with anxiety, psychotropic medications are often used to dampen the SNS, but they have not been shown to increase activity of the PNS. In addition, many medications can dull emotions and interfere with mental functioning. Controlled breathing, on the other hand, provides a free and simple way to increase activity of the PNS without harming emotional and mental processing.
Controlled breathing restores balance in the Stress Response System by normalizing SNS activity and increasing PNS activity. A win-win, baby!
STEP 3: GOAL SETTING
When starting a new mental health practice, it is easy to try it once and move on. For breathing exercises to work for you, you must be committed to practicing.
Answer the following questions to create motivation to continue the practice:
What is a specific outcome you are hoping to achieve by following this plan?
Why is this outcome important to you?
When I achieve this outcome, my life will improve in the following ways:
To achieve your outcome, practicing the breathing exercises is critical. I will do the following 3 things to ensure that I will practice breathing regularly:
STEP 4: THE BREATHING PRACTICE
Read through all of the steps before you go through them one-by-one.
You will play a video where you will listen to chimes that you will breathe along with. The video is 51 minutes in length. Begin with 5 minutes of practice and work your way up. In this case, begin the video at 46 minutes so that you will know when you're finished without needing to open your eyes to check the time.
Sit comfortably in a chair with your spine tall (no hunching!). Or, lie comfortably on your back.
Relax your shoulders away from your ears, relax your mouth, and jaw. Relax your eyes, eyebrows, forehead.
Soften all the muscles at the top of your spine and go down your back. Soften the muscles of your chest, belly, legs, and feet.
Take a deep, relaxing breath by inhaling through your nose to the point where you completely fill your belly and chest. Open your mouth and exhale all of your air. Repeat two more times.
Zip your lips and begin to breathe normally in and out of your nose.
Breathe gently. Your breath should fill your belly first then the chest.
Prepare for slow, deep breathing. Do not force or strain to lengthen your inhales and exhales. This will come with practice.
Get ready to listen to the chimes. Inhale when you hear the high chime. Exhale when you hear the low chime.
Play the chimes.
Close your eyes or soften your gaze to a single point.
STEP 5: SELF-REFLECTION AFTER PRACTICE
A key component of the breathing practice is to reflect on your experience. Notice what happened to your mind and body. This integrates your experience and helps refine your practice for the future.
You may notice that you can't relax initially. This is normal. The body and mind will calm with more practice.
What did you notice in your body?
What did you notice about your mind and thoughts?
Were you aware of any mental or emotional states such as agitation, confusion, attentiveness, etc. during the practice?
What else came up for you during this practice?
STEP 6: PRACTICE 20 MINUTES EVERY DAY
The only way this breathing practice can work to reduce your stress is if you practice regularly.
Would you expect to lose weight and gain muscle after exercising one time? The key is to stick to it and bring this skill with you wherever you go. It's free, remember?
What time of day can you set aside 20 minutes to practice your breathing?
Where in your home is best for you to practice? What can you do to ensure this is a quiet and calm space for you?
What are some challenges to doing this practice regularly? How will you overcome those challenges?
What are some key moments or triggers in your day that you could become mindful of your breath and practice deep breathing? (Even 1 minute of practice)
STEP 7: KEEP A DAILY LOG
Like any habit you are trying to form, it is helpful to stay accountable by keeping a daily log of your activity.
Create a goal (e.g., 5 days a week for 3 weeks) and give yourself a reward when you reach your goal.
My free workbook is set-up for you to enter this information and keep track of your practice!