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Simple breathing technique can enhance your calm

Sarah Stinson

RED WING, Minn. -- With all the decorating, shopping, cooking and get-togethers, the holiday season can leave a person breathless. Though these activities are all in good fun, the added commitments can also bring on additional stress this time of year.

A host of studies have examined how overwhelming the holidays can feel. A survey released in November by leadership training firm VitalSmarts found a quarter of respondents reported taking on too much during the holidays. Women are affected the most, with 44 percent reporting added stress over the holidays compared to 31 percent of men, according to a 2006 study by the American Psychological Association.

Sarah Stinson is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor of the Integrative Medicine and Health program at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. We asked her about ways to de-stress this month, including simple deep breathing techniques.

Here’s what she had to say:

How effective is deep breathing at controlling stress?

It is very effective and simple. Deep breathing increases the oxygen supply to the brain creating a sense of calmness.

What are the basic breathing exercises or techniques to get started?

There are two breathing exercises that are easy and beneficial. In diaphragmatic breathing, you can start by putting one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. As you inhale you want your stomach to expand, and as you exhale it will contract. The focus is on the belly rather than the chest. This allows for a deeper breath.

An easy way to start is to inhale to the count of five using either numbers or the letters in the word R-E-L-A-X. As you exhale you do the same thing. Starting with five cycles of five counts in and out will increase the oxygen flow and create a sense of overall peace. You can work up to doing it for a few minutes throughout the day.

Another breathing technique is the 4-7-8 breathing. Start with breathing in through your nose to a mental count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale completely through your mouth for a count of eight. You can start with doing four cycles of this twice a day.

Left unchecked, what can stress do to the body?

Stress can affect both your physical and mental health. Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, weight changes and diabetes. Common effects are headaches, muscle tension, digestive issues, decreased immune system, anxiety, depression, irritability, fatigue and sleep problems.

Any other tips to help relax this holiday season?

Focusing on who and what we are grateful for, especially during the holidays, can help improve our overall mood, immune system and stress response. Other things one can do are to get outside in nature, laugh, get plenty of restful sleep, set aside time for activities you enjoy such as reading or listening to music, get a massage, do yoga or tai chi and journaling.

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