Deep, focused breathing is an easy, proven way to relax the body and mind. However, it isn’t just about relaxing; scientific research shows that focused, intentional breathing is proven to affect the brain, digestion, heart, and immune system. This is because the body is actually designed to physiologically react to stress as a mechanism to keep us safe. Stress speeds the heart rate, diverts blood away from other organs to the muscles, and converts stored energy into strength as part of the “fight” response. The response occurs in the part of the brain responsible for generating CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone), which, if left in our system too long, can cause the adrenal gland to release cortisol- the stress hormone responsible for storing fat. Intentional breathing exercises can train the way your body reacts to stressful situations by lessening the production of those stress hormones. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic system, which is responsible for calming us down, while rapid breathing is controlled by the sympathetic system, or the “fight or flight” response. Follow the links provided for additional information on the science behind focused breathing and make sure to check back next week for tips on how to incorporate breathing techniques into your daily routine.
“Equal Breathing” starts by inhaling and exhaling for equals amounts of time; for example, breathe in for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four through your nose. This technique can be used anywhere but is especially effective before bed.
“Abdominal Breathing” begins with one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Inhale deeply through the nose ensuring that the diaphragm, rather than the chest, inflates. Breathing 6-10 deep breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day will result in immediate reduction of heart rate and blood pressure. This technique works best when used before any stressful event, however, keep in mind that those who operate at increased stress levels regularly may be surprised how difficult it can be. Like many life changes, keep at it and you will notice long term results!
“Alternate Nostril Breathing” calms and balances by uniting both the left and right sides of the brain. Start in a comfortable position, hold the left thumb over left nostril and inhale deeply though the right nostril. Close off the right with your ring finger and exhale through the left nostril.
Continue the pattern inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right. Use this method when you need a boost of energy or when you need to focus.
“Progressive Relaxation” relieves tension by tensing and relaxing each muscle group for two to three second each. Start with feet and toes then move up through knees, thighs, rear, chest, arms, hands, neck, jaw, and eyes while maintaining deep, slow breaths. Breathe in through the nose and hold for a count of 5 then breathe out through the nose on release. This technique is effective anywhere from work, to home, and even while driving.
The breath is the first physiological response to be affected by trauma or stress. However, intentional, purposeful breathing can affect our health in many ways. Health breathing affects the immune system by increasing the body’s energy to put towards the constant process of self-healing and detoxifying. It also regulates the nervous system to keep energy focused on healthy immune system function and accelerates regeneration of tissue by allowing the system to heal rather than fight off invaders. Healthy breathing improves the circulatory system by improving circulation and increasing flow of oxygen to organs. Proper diaphragmatic action aids the digestive system by acting as a pump to massage the internal organs, significantly aiding in their function. Further, conscious breathing improves power of mental concentration and observation which leads to higher productivity, learning capacity, and decision making.
We have explored how focused breathing works, different relaxation techniques, and what the health benefits are, now we will highlights everyday activities that can be improved by focusing on the way you breathe!
For those of you who like to jog, training your lungs to breathe more deeply can actually improve your muscle performance to help you run longer and with less effort. The more fully you breathe, meaning breathing with your diaphragm rather than your chest, the more oxygen gets routed to your muscles.
Sleep or lack thereof, is another everyday activity that can be improved simply by utilizing one simple breathing technique. Many people experience occasional to frequent troubles falling asleep; this can be caused by stimulants like coffee or energy drinks, or external lights from televisions or phones which interfere with our natural sleep cycles. The “4-7-8” breathing technique is a simple and quick way to naturally ease the body into a calm state. Breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then exhale completely for a count of eight. Repeat the cycle until you feel more relaxed or fall asleep.
Additionally, breathing techniques can even provide natural pain relief. Constantly living in a state of heightened stress levels can lead to increased body pain as muscles tense and stress hormones increase. Mindful breathing techniques work to relax your muscles and rid your body of stress chemicals which will lead to long-term changes in your body and natural pain relief over time.
Brain focus is a top-down process in which your brain first takes in the visual information and begins to process it so it can tell you what to focus on. Losing focus, on the other hand, is actually an evolutionary system designed to keep us safe. This occurs when your brain notices things that require attention, an evolutionary mechanism that requires the brain to break concentration when something is dangerous.
Once focus is interrupted, it can take the brain anywhere from 5 to 25 minutes to return to the original task, although the human brain should be able to focus on any given task for up to two hours before it will need a 20-30 minute break. A University study found that multitasking may be to blame for focused interruption. By training our brains to ignore irrelevant cues, thereby decreasing out attention to detail. You can train your brain to stay more focused; however, it takes work and requires mindfulness.
Give yourself deadlines: The 52-17 Technique. Using a time-tracking and productivity app, researchers studied the habits of the most productive employees and learned that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before returning to work. They concluded the reason for the employees high productivity rate was due to the intense purpose with which they worked for the 52 minute period enabled by the resting time lead into the work interval.
Be aware of your emotional state: The brain responds powerfully to negative emotions which it regards as a threat signal. These negative emotions interfere with the brain’s ability to do cognitive work. You can keep the negative emotions at bay by noticing negative emotional patterns. Pay attention to incidents throughout the day that trigger a negative emotional response and try to find a way to resolve that trigger and let go of the irritation. Additionally, exercise and sleeping well will improve the brain’s ability to stay positive.
Prevent distractions: Your brain continuously scans the environment around you even when you are focused on a specific task. To prevent distractions from taking away your focus, use the ABC methods to halt your brain from becoming distracted. Become AWARE of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. BREATHE deeply. CHOOSE intentionally: continue with your task or move on to one that is more important.
Shift your focus: Sometimes you need to turn your attention to a different task in order to give your brain a break. Before you begin a different task, allow the focus to be on your body rather than the brain. This can include going for a walk, doing deep breathing exercises, or stretching. Even if you aren’t consciously aware when you are doing this, your mind continues to sort through past tasks and can often trigger new ideas.
In order to properly focus the brain needs to take periodic rests to increase sharpness and motivation. Many tools and techniques are available for accomplishing just that. However, while both employees and managers report knowing the importance of taking a break, many do not actually do so. As work demand intensifies, employees tend to believe if they never take a break from work, they will be able to accomplish more despite the fact that without a break, we are actually less efficient and prone to make more mistakes.
In a study done of office workers at Staples, more than a quarter of employees did not take a break, other than lunch, during their workday even though 86% acknowledged that taking a break would make them more productive. Employees cited they did not do so because they either felt guilty or did not feel as though they could leave their desks. So, stop feeling guilty! Giving yourself a little time to recharge will truly improve your focus when you return to the task at hand and improve your quality of work in the long run.
Now that you’ve realized the importance of breaks and are going to include them in your day, there are many productivity boosting activities that can be done during that resting time. For example, a 20 minute walk can increase blood flow to the brain, enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, and improve memory and cognitive performance
Eating can also be a productive use of time while giving your brain a chance to rest; a healthy snack can replenish brain power! Further, read a non-work related book or grab a coffee- some studies have shown optimal times from consuming caffeine fall between 9:30-11:30am and 1:30-5:30pm, times that more closely correlate with our body’s circadian clock.
Another option is listening to music; focusing on music can significantly improve our motor and reasoning skills! Depending on the environment of your workplace, a midday nap of even just 10 minutes has been shown to improve cognitive function and decrease sleepiness and fatigue. In addition, talking with friends or coworkers during a period of rest from work can increase productivity by helping us de-stress.
Research indicates that meditation brings about dramatic effects in as little as a 10 minute session. Several studies have demonstrated that subjects who meditated for a short period of time showed increased alpha waves (relaxed brain waves) and decreased anxiety and depression. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that it activates the sections of the brain in charge of the autonomic nervous system, which governs the functions in our bodies that we can’t control, such as digestion and blood pressure.
These are also the functions that are often compromised by stress. Specifically, meditation enhances your ability to ignore sensations of anxiety as you begin to break the connection between the Medial Prefrontal Cortex, the part of the brain that references back to you, and the Amygdala, the alarm system of the brain that is responsible for our initial emotional responses. It facilitates the strengthening of the Lateral Prefrontal Cortex- the part of the brain that allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical, and balanced perspective. Over time, meditation rewires these neuropathways so that you experience sensations in a less reactive way allowing for a greater capacity for empathy.
When it comes to beginning meditation practice, for many people, the word meditation seems to be the first obstacle to starting their practice. Many think they are too busy, cannot sit still, or cannot quiet the mind long enough to meditate. The key is just to start! Begin with accessible techniques that will fit easily into your schedule and work best for you. Begin with just 10 minutes a day of any of the below techniques.
*Guided Meditation: There are many resources online that supply guided meditations and music to help sooth you during your practice.
*Candles: If you find that you have trouble focusing, try lighting a candle and staring at it. Your attention will be held by the light and if your mind starts wandering, just observe what the candle is doing to allow your thoughts to release.
*Mantra: Repeating words over and over again can help you find calm and focus. You can choose from various Sanskrit mantras which have meaning in the words and sounds, or you can make up your own. The important part is not the word itself but that you feel good about your choice.
*Visualization: Another easy meditation technique is to picture an idyllic setting in your mind. Focus on the picture and let yourself embellish it as much as you like.
*Tapping: tapping on meridian points on the body, derived from acupuncture, releases the body’s energy blockages that cause negative emotions such as anxiety or stress.
*Mindfulness Meditation: Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Take a few moments here, and then allow your focus to broaden to your body, noticing those sensations. Lastly, expand your awareness to everything you can hear and sense. Reverse this process to come back one step at a time until you are focusing on your breath again.
*Yoga: a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you are encouraged to focus less on your busy day and more on the moment.
Meditation helps ease chronic pain, anxiety, improves heart health, and boosts mood and immunity. The relaxation response from meditation can help increase metabolism, lowers blood pressure, and improves brain waves; tension and tightness seep from muscles as the body receives a quiet message to relax. In addition to lowering blood pressure, this practice also helps ward off illness and infections by an increased levels of antibody production.
In fact, researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered is that in long-term practitioners of relaxation methods had more active “disease-fighting genes” compared to those who practiced no form of relaxation. These changes were induced by what they call “the relaxation effect.” Moreover, the benefits of relaxation effects were found to increase with regular practice: the more people practiced relaxation methods such as meditation or deep breathing, the greater their chances or remaining free of arthritis and joint pain with stronger immunity, healthier hormone levels, and lower blood pressure.
20 Meditation Tips For Beginners
Meditation Balance’s the Body’s Systems
Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress
Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain
The Benefits of Meditation: MIT News
Eight Weeks to a Better Brain: Harvard Gazette
Embrace Meditation: by Matt Loux
“One of the best ways I have found to reduce stress and keep a positive attitude is through meditation. Meditation involves sitting quietly or with calming music for a few minutes a day. As you meditate, let go of the negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. I started off with 5 to 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly and reflecting on my life and what I want out of it. I have increased my meditation time to about 30 minutes each morning, which gets me off to a great start. It is amazing how much my attitude has changed and how many positive ideas I have just from meditating very day. One of the best ways to get started is to find an app on your phone that either plays calming music or features a voice walking you through the process. Whatever method you choose, the key is to get started. I encourage every police officer to try these techniques. Positivity leads to a better work environment, a closer family, and longevity.”
-Matt has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and has a background in fraud, criminal investigation, as well as hospital, school, and network security. Matt has researched and studied law enforcement and security best practices for the past 10 years.