Mental & Emotional Health
6 Ways to Breathe Easier and Reduce Stress
People have called me “the breath guy” or “Dr. Calm” for a few years now. If only they knew the truth: I’ve long-struggled with mind-wandering, chronic worry and ups-and-downs throughout most of my adult life.
That’s part of why I started the Calming Technology Lab at Stanford University, where we focused our research on using biosensors to sense the neurophysiological patterns revealing the cognitive and emotional patterns that drive health and performance. That work became the starting point for Spire’s mission to help people reduce negative stress and improve their health.
New sources of stress seem to crop up daily. In fact, the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” study showed stress to be at an all-time high since they first began the study in 2007.
This increase in countrywide tension comes with a profound effect on our lives. Stress impacts our heart, digestive and immune system health, and can even kill brain cells! It also keep us from getting a good night’s sleep, which is so critical to our overall health that the CDC recently declared insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.
It’s clear that stress needs to be managed for the betterment of both our immediate happiness and our long-term health. So, I made this list of six things we can do to help manage our stress, improve our health and get a better night’s sleep.
Breathing is something that most take for granted but building awareness into breathing can have tremendous benefits that include physical relaxation, the emotional calm, and the insight that come with it.
There are two major ways to practice awareness of breathing. One involves the formal discipline of making a specific time in which you stop all activity, assume a special posture, and dwell for some time in moment-to-moment awareness of the in-breath and the out-breath.
The second way of practicing using breath is to be mindful of it from time to time during the day. Or even all day long. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing.
We call this informal meditation practice. It is at least as valuable as the formal practice but it is easily neglected and loses much of its ability to stabilize the mind if it’s not combined with a regular formal meditation practice.
2) Reboot Your Meditation Practice
In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss notes that a daily meditation practice was one of the most prevalent constants across everyone he interviewed.
With an abundance of meditation apps available, it’s easier than ever to inject some extra zen in your day. Which meditation style you choose delivers different benefits, so consider mindfulness meditation for bringing some additional calm to your day.
As with conscious breathing, general mindfulness works best as part of a larger lifestyle change toward promoting more calm and daily stability, rather than a standalone cure-all.
3) Move It!
If you’re someone whose job is largely sedentary, it’s important to get active regularly.
Exercise provides a reliable and healthy way to burn up some of the anxious energy that might have collected in your mind and body. Moving around makes it possible for you to release the tensions and stress you’re carrying.
Studies show that exercise also helps increase mental function and creates endorphins to perk up your mood. The accomplishment you receive from tackling a hard workout is why gym devotees and ardent runners can attest to flying high while feeling physically spent. Exercise also works as an effective treatment for anxiety.
There’s no denying that technological advancements have improved our lives – it’s when they start using us rather than the other way around that trouble arises.
With all of the push notifications, social media updates and emails we get in a day, it’s no wonder why we’re left feeling stressed and scatterbrained by a never-ending inundation of pings and buzzes demanding our attention.
That’s why it’s important to restore balance to our technology use, and this can be done all day to make sure you can get better rest at night.
- Ease into your day by keeping a buffer between when you wake up and when you first check email.
- For people whose job requires heavy screen usage, consider getting a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses or installing a browser extension to ease eye strain.
- Limit technology use prior to bed – giving yourself a 90-minute screen-free period before bed gives your eyes time to reset, helping you sleep better.
5) Make a Clean Start
If your brain feels too cluttered to make sense of everything, try decluttering your surroundings first.
With so much out of our control, it’s important to acknowledge that and then work on effecting change in those areas which are.
An easy way to begin putting this into practice is revisiting a not-quite-loathsome childhood chore: making your bed.
Consider this act endorsed by the U.S. Navy, as Naval Admiral William McRaven shed some light on why this was so important during a 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.”
Beyond your bed, keeping the rest of your house and your desk at work tidy will help reduce frazzled feelings. If “clean the house” sounds too daunting, try making a checklist with smaller goals so you can sustain momentum by checking things off more frequently.
6) Embrace the Outdoors
It’s crucial to make a conscious effort to get some fresh air in your day beyond your morning commute. Researchers at Stanford have found those who live in the city are 20% more likely to develop anxiety disorders, and 40% more likely to have mood disorders. They also found spending time in nature to be helpful in emotional regulation, decreasing the number of negative thoughts experienced.
Aim to get at least 30 continuous minutes outside a day; take an opportunity to eat your lunch al fresco or turn a 1-on-1 into a walking meeting, which removes the formalities that might hamper creativity or productivity while getting in your daily steps.
With this new toolkit of easy-to-implement habits, here’s to making your life less stressful!
Neema Moraveji, Ph.D. teaches the popular “Designing Calm” at the Stanford Design School and his work has been covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR among other esteemed publications. Dr. Moraveji is co-founder and chief product officer of Spire, the first wearable to track and influence both activity and state of mind.
Dr. Moraveji received his B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Maryland at College Park and his M.S. from Carnegie Mellon University. He received his Ph.D., “Augmented Self-Regulation”, from Stanford University. For more information on Dr. Moraveji’s work visit @moraveji, or blog.spire.io/2014/06/24/breath-spire-a-few-key-questions/
TedX talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRAg7YfCpGc