Can something we do all day unconsciously be the answer to managing stress, anxiety and improving overall health by simply being conscious of it?
Yes, it can.
Breathing, often overlooked as a stress management tool because we associate breath work with a long meditation practice that requires incense, a quiet room and allocated time (which is wonderful of course, but who has time for that every single day?!).
Science is catching up with what ancient healers and yogis have been preaching for centuries. Your breath or prana in yogic terms is vastly important to better health and wellness. A simple breathing exercise can turn up your parasympathetic nervous system, which is our rest and digest system and turn down our sympathetic nervous system, which commands our fight or flight response.
Most people today are living in their sympathetic nervous system state too often, and when this is active your heart rate goes up and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping. It is an excellent mechanism in the body for when we really need it, like when being chased by a bear, but in today’s world people are dropping into this state from everyday stresses like work, family or finances. This low grade chronic stress can weaken the immune system over time and increase inflammation, which we are now learning is the cause for many diseases and illnesses.
Deep belly breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing is breathing from your belly, not your chest, which most people do today. By filling up your belly this allows your diaphragm to contract and move down allowing space for your lungs to fill. Breathing this way turns up your parasympathetic nervous system by activating your vagas nerve, the longest nerve in the body. When this system is active you relax, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers and you’re put into a calmer state.
The opposite of what I like to call Buddha belly breathing, is breathing from your chest or secondary muscles up by your collar bone. This is usually a very fast pace breath that keeps the belly and diaphragm locked. This can result in much neck and shoulder tension. If you experience problems in that area, you might want to look at your breath. Simply becoming aware of your breath is the first step in changing how you breathe.
This can be a very beneficial practice to bring in, not only in your everyday life, but on the tennis court as well. Returning your focus to your breath in between points and deliberately controlling it through your belly will help to lower your heart rate, get you refocused and centered for the next point. Obviously, it would be difficult to control when you’re huffing and puffing, but simply bringing awareness to your breath will have positive effects on your game.
I have particularly noticed this helps me before I serve and return. I take a few deep breaths as I am bouncing the ball before I serve and while in ready position to return I am noticing myself exhale gently as my opponent is getting ready to serve. This keeps me relaxed and focused, rather than having a racing mind.
Start to notice how you breathe throughout the day. In what area are you breathing from? Are they short shallow breaths? You can practice a breathing exercise anytime, anywhere.
A simple breathing technique:
Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4, hold the breath in for a count of 2 and exhale gently for a count of 6. Repeat for 4 cycles.
If this count feels too long then you can shorten the breath lengths to 2 in and 4 out. This is a practice you can do before you get out of bed in the morning, at a stop light or throughout the day to keep you in the parasympathetic state.
On the court you can bring awareness to your breath in between points and focus on having long exhales to recover. Ideally, you want to breathe through your nose, but this can be difficult to do all of the time when you’re working out vigorously. Whether you are sucking wind or able to take long deep breaths, being conscious of your breath is what will begin to relax you. Aim to take 3 deep breaths in between points and notice yourself refocus and ready to attack the next point!
Hannah Holladay is a competitive tennis player and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She grew up playing tennis in San Diego and went on to play college tennis at UC Irvine. A current Long Beach resident, she is the Girls’ Head Coach at Los Alamitos High School and works for the Southern California Tennis Academy. “Tennis will always be my first passion, so I plan on continuing to play and teach in addition to helping people reach their health goals,” she says. “I am excited to share my knowledge and hopefully inspire people to make healthier choices.” You can check out Hannah’s Instagram @h4health and website www.hannahholladay.com for health and wellness advice.