Phoenix Life Coaching


Optimizing Your Stress - Part 2

"Too much tension and the string will break. Too little tension and it will not play.” - Buddha

This is the second of a series of articles on optimizing your stress. In the first article of this series I introduced the notion that too little stress can be as harmful as too much and that we are best served by finding a balance between these extremes.

In this article, we will examine what may well be the ultimate relaxation skill: breathing. This breath-based relaxation exercise is presented as a method for reducing physical and emotional tension. If practised regularly, this simple skill can help reduce chronic tension and provide a tool for reducing acute stress in a pinch. There are countless relaxation methods available and it is worth experimenting to discover what works best for you. Be advised, however, that being able to calm the mind and relax the body at will is a skill and it takes time for these various “training” methods to help you develop that skill. Be gentle on yourself. If you achieve but a moment of inner quietude during 20 minutes of practice, that’s a wonderful start.

The Breath of Life / The Breath of Serenity

To breathe is to live. We can survive for days without water and weeks without food, but we can only survive for a few moments without air. Breathing is so central to our survival, that our whole being is intimately linked to it. When we become physically tense or distressed, or when we experience certain emotions, such as fright or anxiety, our breathing becomes shallow and irregular. When we are safe and restful, when we feel at peace, our breathing becomes slow, deep, and regular. What many people do not realize is that this relationship between breathing and our physical / emotional state works in both directions. We can induce greater physical and emotional relaxation by controlling our breathing, by making it slow, deep, and regular.

Try the following exercises. Begin with “The Full Breath” and after you’re comfortable with that, you can try the other variations. It is best to chose a quiet, comfortable place to practice where you will not be interrupted. A place you associate with relaxation would be ideal, but it can be just about anywhere. Wear lose fitting clothing and sit in a comfortable position. I recommend practising twice a day for about 10 to 15 minutes at a time. After about a week of practice, you should notice a greater ability to relax at will. You may notice a greater degree of overall calm throughout your day.

The Full Breath - This is the fundamental breath common to all breathing exercises.
1. Exhale fully, contracting your stomach to empty the lower part of your lungs.
2. Begin to slowly inhale through you nose by gently pushing your belly out and filling the lower lungs...
3. Inhale further, by allowing your chest to expand...
4. Inhale a little more by raising your shoulders a little to fill the upper lungs.
5. Gently hold onto the breath for a moment without strain...
6. Release your breath through your mouth in reverse order of the inhalation, allowing your shoulders to drop, your chest to fall, and finally tightening your abdomen to empty the lower lungs.
7. Repeat slowly and rhythmically, taking 5-10 seconds to inhale, holding for 2-3 seconds, and breathing out for about 5-10 seconds.

The Four Count - Practice The Full Breath as outlined above, but count with each full inhalation. Count from 1 to 4 and then reverse it to 1 etc. (i.e., 1-2-3-4-3-2-1-2-3-4 and so on).

The Mantra - Deep breath as above, but with each exhalation, hum softly or repeat a phrase or word that is relaxing for you (e.g., So...oftly, Gen...ntle, Lo...ove).

Mindfulness - For this variation, begin with the Full Breath as above but focus on the sensations of your breathing. Focus on how your lungs , abdomen, and chest feel. How does the air feel as it passes through your nose. Are you aware of any tension in your body as you focus on your breathing? Let it go. If distracted, gently return your attention back to your breathing. Find an aspect of your breathing that is easy for you to remain attentive to and allow your focus to rest there. Permit your breathing to slip into a natural rhythm much like the rhythm of the waves washing onto a shoreline. Continue with a gentle focus on your breathing. The only expectation you should have of yourself and of your meditation at this point is that you will spend time in this simple awareness.

The Breath of Serenity and other meditation methods are subtle and are best used as a part of your daily self-maintenance routine. When feeling acutely stressed, it’s best to use activities, stress busters, that can cut through the mind and body’s powerful reactions. The following brief exploration should help you decide which such activities are best for you.

How do I choose a Stress Buster?

There are differences in how people initially manifest the effects of stress. Some people react more on a physical level and experience initial symptoms on that level. Others react more on a mental level and their initial symptoms to stress manifest there. Others yet react in both modes. It makes sense then, that if you want to counteract a reaction to stress, you are best to choose an activity that targets the mode you’re most sensitive in.

Try this quick assessment: Think back to a recent time when you were in a highly stressful situation. Sit with this for a minute, trying to recall the situation in as much detail as possible. Now, are you aware of whether or not you felt physical reactions at the time. These might include an increase in heart rate, sweaty palms, shallow or tight breathing, shakiness, digestive discomfort, or a tendency to pace. Note the number and intensity of those symptom types. Are you aware of whether or not you felt mental reactions at the time. These might include difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, racing thoughts, needless worry, distressing images, negative thinking, and expecting the worst. Again, note the number and intensity of those symptom types. By comparing your experiences in these two modes, you can guess-timate whether you’re a physical reactor, mental reactor, or a mixed reactor.

You can use this information to identify de-stressors that might work best for you when you first notice the effects of stress. For physical reactors, try physical exercise. Running, swimming, or even walking can be useful. Gentle approaches, such as stretching, yoga, deep-muscle relaxation, massage, and hot baths can also help. For mental reactors, try methods that engage your mind fully. Meditation, reading a good book, absorbing yourself in a game or some other mental activity might work best for you. Mixed reactors can choose a combination of the above, or use an activity that combines both, such as a competitive sport, or mindfulness meditations.

In Part 3 I will outline several means of turning up the heat, of increasing your stress and motivation levels.


Copyright © 2002  Phoenix Life-Coaching.

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G. Stephen Renfrey, Ph.D






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