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Breathing Techniques for Stress

Created by Rhea Sheedy (Founder of Ballet Fusion)

September 22, 2021, London, United Kingdom

Breathing is a necessary part of life and something we often do subconsciously. When we breathe in air, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Studies have shown that improper breathing can upset this exchange and contribute to anxiety and other emotional and physical disturbances.

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected our mental wellbeing with not-for-profit organization, Kaiser Family Foundation, reporting that 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder since the pandemic, a share that has been largely consistent, up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019.

Whether you're returning to the office, meeting up with friends, or simply being in a crowded space many of us will be feeling the strain on their mental health as we deal with re-entry and other anxieties. Luckily, our breathing is a remarkable tool that is free and easy to use and can help us regain control over our emotions. By focusing on the rhythm, rate, and depth of breath, we can create a sense of calmness.

We speak to Rhea Sheedy, trained in the Royal Academy of Dance style and founder of Ballet Fusion, a unique fitness fusion company built upon traditional ballet techniques with elements of pilates, yoga and fitness. She has created a 6-minute breathwork routine (with high-resolution videos demonstrating each exercise) which can be done anywhere and by anyone (even children!), helping to calm us in anxiety-inducing situations.

6-Minute Breathwork Routine

Alternate nostril breathing (1 minute)

  1. Lift your right hand up toward your nose and exhale completely. Place your right thumb gently over your right nostril.

  2. Inhale through your left nostril and then cover the left nostril with your index finger.

  3. Open the right nostril and exhale through this side. Inhale through the right nostril and then cover this nostril.

  4. Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side before repeating.

“Nostril breathing is known in some yoga practices as 'nadi shodhana' which in sanskrit means 'channel purification.’ It’s thought to help promote balance, clarity and relaxation. Biologically, it’s proven to help lung function, lower heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic stress. A great exercise to do before entering a crowded space, before a big meeting or presentation and lovely to calm you down before bed,” Rhea explains.

Cupped hand breathing (1 minute)

  1. Cup your hands together and place lightly over your nose and mouth.

  2. Then breathe in and out slowly no more than 6 - 12 times. As you breathe out, the CO2 from your lungs collects in your hands and you can re-breathe it to help restore the balance of oxygen and CO2 in your blood.

“In moments of stress or panic, we breathe faster (almost hyperventilating sometimes), which means we quickly lose carbon dioxide. This can lead to dizziness, weakness, lightheadedness, tingling in the hands and feet - which can add to the anxiety, making everything seem worse.

Although we're taught that increased oxygen is good for us, our CO2 levels have a direct impact on our levels of calmness. Breathing slowly through cupped hands quickly decreases the amount of CO2 we are losing and the symptoms quickly subside, allowing our heart rate to slow down and body to readjust. A great technique which can be used in the most discreet way,” she says.

Shoulder lifts with exhaling (1 minute)

  1. Stand with the feet hip-width apart and a strong posture (lift the pelvic floor, engage the abs).

  2. Inhale through the nose while lifting the shoulders up towards the ears.

  3. Exhale through the mouth as you drop the shoulders allowing them to relax. Repeat four to five times.

“Notice how much more relaxed you feel and the tension releasing from your upper body. We hold a lot of tension in our neck and shoulders and this quick check-in will help to relieve that pent-up stress,” Rhea explains.

Port de Bras with breathing (2 minutes)

  1. Stand with the feet hip-width apart and a strong posture (lift the pelvic floor, engage the abs).

  2. Inhale through the nose - lifting the arms through 1st, to 2nd position.

  3. Exhale through the mouth into a forward fold - letting the head and arms drop & relax.

  4. Inhale through the nose while rolling up through the spine.

  5. Open the arms out to 2nd inhaling through the nose. Repeat this exercise.

"This is a great exercise that can really help to centre you and calm your mind. I love this one because many of us sit at a desk all day so a lot of tension can build up in our back. Not only does this help to calm us but it's also great at stretching out the spine," she explains.

Prayer inhale, push exhale (1 minute)

  1. Start in either a standing or sitting position and inhale, bring the palms together and raise the hands towards the sky.

  2. Exhale as you push the arms down, palms facing the ground.

  3. Repeat, imagining you are inhaling peace and relaxation and exhaling stress and worry.

"This can be done sitting or standing and is a lovely movement to do before bed or first thing in the morning," she says.

Rhea says she has personally suffered from anxiety in the past but has found focusing on her breath has helped her to overcome challenging situations:

“Like many people, I suffer from anxiety in certain situations (for me it's crowded spaces with no way out, like on public transport or a plane). I find that noticing my breathing and taking a moment to control it with one of the techniques really helps. It's easier said than done when you are in a moment of panic but the best tip I can share is not to fight it, just notice what's happening in your body and then gently bring your breath back to normal with one of the breathing exercises.

On a day-to-day basis, I use my ballet classes and exercises to enjoy breathing and become more in tune with my breath. Taking the Port de bras or Prayer inhale and exhale every day is a lovely way to relax and build strong neural pathways for an overall calmer and healthier nervous system,” she explains.

So the next time you find your heart racing in a moment of panic, try one of these breathing techniques for yourself and feel the calming effect it has. Remember stress and anxiety are common disorders that people suffer from at some stage in their life but by focusing within, you might just be able to control what’s happening around you - you’ve got this!


Somatic, Self Help, Teaching Tools, Wellness

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