COVID-19, Stress Reduction and Slow Breathing
Whatever is going on in your country and your life right now, it’s almost certain that you’re being affected by the various governmental measures to restrict the spread of the new coronavirus and COVID-19. It’s also quite likely that you’re finding some (or all!) aspects of this stressful.
The problem is that as well as being unpleasant in itself, COVID-19 stress is bad for your physical health. There’s an extensive medical literature on this. In particular, experiencing sustained stress is known to reduce the effectiveness of your immune system. Obviously this is not what you need in the middle of a pandemic. Or indeed, not what you need going into the usual winter cold and flu season.
But don’t worry. You are not helpless. You may not be able to do much about the national and international situation regarding COVID-19 but you can do something about your own health and stress levels. You can even improve your immune system.
What’s the simplest way to reduce COVID-19-related stress?
There are loads of things you can do to reduce stress, whatever its cause. Lots of people recommend yoga and meditation. Others recommend laughing to release tension – and it’s always a good idea to let go this way. However, one of the simplest and most effective ways to lower your stress level is to slow down the rate at which you are breathing.
The reason is that breathing slowly can almost immediately slow your heart rate. This on its own will help you feel calmer. Breathing slowly also stimulates the nervous system in a way that calms our nerves, and ensures they are getting sufficient oxygen. Also, if you’re hyperventilating then deliberately slowing down your breathing will stop this.
In other words, slowing down your breathing has a direct effect on the inner goings-on of your body. You don’t need to perform mental gymnastics to calm your mind (though regular practices of things like meditation and mindfulness can definitely help). You can instead do something that works directly on your unconscious physical functions and then observe the beneficial effects on your mental state.
According to Alice Boyes, PhD, from Psychology Today, “The effect on anxiety is almost instant. Because calm breathing is a physiological strategy, this approach is also virtually universally effective for getting anxiety relief. It’s hard to go wrong with it!”
Slow breathing improves your immune system
As well as helping your immune system indirectly through reducing COVID-19 stress, breathing slowly can also improve the functioning of the immune system directly. This is because breathing slowly helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part that promotes rest and relaxation. This in turn has knock-on benefits for the body such as reducing inflammation throughout the body, which helps the immune system to function more effectively.
Slow breathing also lowers blood pressure
Slow breathing has also been shown to lower high blood pressure. In fact, it lowers blood pressure and heart rate within minutes. This is an added benefit as having high blood pressure can put you more at risk of developing serious symptoms if you do happen to get COVID-19.
If you have high blood pressure, then you can look at our coronavirus page on our sister website. There’s a lot of additional information on things you can do to reduce your blood pressure, including advice on helpful foods and drinks and activities: Coronavirus and high blood pressure: what you can do
How to do slow breathing
Basically, just find somewhere to sit comfortably. You could lie down but many find it’s easier to breathe well while sitting. The key is just to slow down the rate at which you’re breathing. Don’t worry about breathing more deeply, or about the mechanics of your breathing. Just slow…it…down.
It’s generally recommended to do this for at least fifteen minutes or so. This will give your body time to really respond to the slow breathing. If you can do it for longer, and are comfortable doing so, then go for it. If not, fifteen minutes is fine. Even if you can only manage a few minutes, anything helps.
Trying making some time for it every day if you can. The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more beneficial it becomes.
I say get ‘better’ at it because although slow breathing is very straightforward, it can actually be quite tricky to keep your breathing consistently slow and steady. This is mainly an issue of focusing your attention. It’s easy for the mind to wander off and before we know it, we’re breathing more quickly again. There’s no terrible problem in this – just bring your attention back and breathe more slowly again. However, the more you can sustain a steady slow rate of breathing, the more relaxing it can be.
Guided slow breathing
The audio tracks have breathing prompts at different breathing rates – from 10 breaths per minute down to 8, 6, 5, and 4 breaths per minute. Most of us usually breathe at a rate of about 12 breaths per minute (one ‘breath’ in this case includes an in-breath and out-breath). So you can start at 10 breaths per minute and gradually work your way down to slower paces as you get used to it.
Listening to relaxing music has also been found to be relaxing in and of itself. As such, most of our audio tracks have soothing music in the background. For each breaths-per-minute cycle, you can choose from tracks with three different types of background music. You can also listen to the breathing prompts on their own, or with your own background music playing along.
You can click here to listen to some samples: Slow breathing audio samples
If you find them helpful, then you can buy the set and instantly download them and get started (details on how to buy are on the samples page too).
NOTE: If you have any breathing or lung issues, or if you’re concerned about changing your breathing for any other reason, please check with your doctor or another health professional before doing slow breathing.
The moral of the story is – there’s enough in the world to worry about right now. You can’t control the coronavirus but you can control your own health. Focus some of your energy on staying as calm as you can and if the going gets rough – breathe more slowly.
Some references: COVID-19, Stress Reduction and Slow Breathing