Are you feeling stressed or stretched thin? Many people deal with the mental strain of a strenuous workload, high expectations, and a busy lifestyle. Additional stressors, like toxic relationships, politics, and crisis events, can push stress and anxiety levels to the extreme.
Anxiety is the leading mental illness for American adults. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders impact over 40 million people in the US but only 37% receive treatment.
As Director at Peak Health, Dr. Bomi Joseph is an advocate for endogenous health. He says stress and anxiety are threats that shouldn’t go without treatment. According to Dr. Joseph, yoga and controlled breathing are great ways to reduce stress and anxiety levels, improving health. He has published more than 42 papers and practices a very rare, dynamic yoga form called Shatriya Yoga.
Why Prolonged Stress is So Dangerous
When the body is stressed, it stays in a state of fight or flight. During long periods of tension, the body doesn’t have a chance to relax and return to a rested state. Stress is helpful when you need to respond quickly to a threat because it heightens the senses and preps the body for immediate action.
The problem is, even though most everyday stressors aren’t genuine threats, the mind still perceives danger. Big projects at work, financial issues, frustrating relationships—many stressors can trigger acute stress.
Prolonged acute stress can lead to serious health issues, including a heightened risk for PTSD. Stress can cause hypertension, chronic headaches, depression, severe anxiety, burnout, and more. Over time, staying in a state of fight or flight will interfere with the immune system response, provoke hair loss, and may cause sleeplessness. Stressed people tend to struggle with healthy eating habits, which can cause an unhealthy fluctuation in body weight. Acute prolonged stress increases the risk factors for heart disease or a heart attack.
Rather than helping you deal with a short-term threat with a heightened state for action, the stress response can become the threat, says Dr. Bomi Joseph.
How Yoga and Controlled Breathing Fight Stress
According to Dr. Bomi Joseph, using methods to calm the body and rest the mind is critical for people facing busy schedules and demanding roles. It’s important to relax regularly, he says, or you risk staying in a state of over-exertion. For those experiencing high levels of prolonged stress, the practice of yoga and controlled breathing can alleviate the pressure.
Yoga is a mindful, full-body exercise. The practice of yoga takes a balance of both strength and flexibility, but modifications exist to make it an ideal workout for anyone. The exercise helps people stop their typical workflow and concentrate on physical stressors—which serve to interrupt the mental stressors.
Controlled breathing also has a calming effect on the mind. It requires a focus only on measured breaths in and out to control airflow.
Yoga and controlled breathing can be effectively practiced together or separately.
How to Start Controlled Breathing to Alleviate Anxiety
Controlled breathing can be done anywhere at any time. An example of a breathing pattern Joseph gives:
Relax and breathe evenly in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds, allowing a gradual pressure to build inside. Relax and let the breath flow out, without pushing. You will find that this takes about eight seconds. Keep repeating this 16-second breathing pattern. Your heart rate will slow down, your blood pressure will fall, and you will reach a deep state of relaxation.
You could practice this while sitting at a desk, before going to bed, or while on a commute.
Controlled breathing practices can make life more enjoyable and improve your focus. With enough practice, you will feel balanced, clear-headed, and relaxed throughout most of your day.
How to Start Yoga to Reduce Stress
For someone who wants to get started, yoga might seem intimidating.
Bomi Joseph says one of the best ways to get started is to look up a few YouTube videos. “Get comfortable with some of the moves and terms,” he notes. “Be very patient and gentle with yourself. Never do anything that provokes pain (though some poses may be uncomfortable). When you have a little bit of confidence, consider joining a class or local yoga studio to improve your practice with a live teacher.” Yoga works best when it becomes a habit, he explains.
At least three longer classes each week is ideal for improving strength and balance. A short wake-up flow each day (just a few minutes long) helps you get moving in the morning and stabilizes your mood for the day. A quick, gentle flow at night will calm the body and set the stage for restful sleep.
Pairing Controlled Breathing with Yoga
When paired together, controlled breathing increases relaxation and control during yoga. During this practice, a person can reach a state of calm where the brain activity is similar to deep cycles of sleep while still fully awake.
Practice moving with focused breath to unify your mental and physical state. “Holding your breath or breathing too quickly tells your mind something is still wrong,” he explains. “Irregular breathing triggers a fight-or-flight response. Practicing controlled breathing in yoga can give you more control and help you achieve deeper relaxation.”