By | Pamela O’Brien | www.shape.com
Sweaty palms, racing heart, and shaking hands seem like inevitable physical responses to stress, whether it be a deadline at work or a performance at a karaoke bar. But turns out, you can control how your body responds to stress — and it all starts with your heart, says Leah Lagos, Psy.D., B.C.B., a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of the book Heart Breath Mind (Buy It, $16, bookshop.org).
Curious? Here, Lagos reveals the breathing exercise for stress that will help you feel calmer in challenging times.
You’ve found that it’s possible to train your body to reduce stress. How?
“First, it’s helpful to understand what stress does to you physiologically. Your heart rate jumps up, and that sends a signal to your brain to shift into a fight-or-flight mode. Your muscles tighten, and your decision-making is impaired. That’s where heart rate variability (HRV) comes in, which is the time between one heartbeat and another. A strong, steady HRV with more time between each heartbeat improves your ability to manage stress.
“How you breathe affects your HRV. When you inhale, your heart rate goes up, and when you exhale, it goes down. Researchers I work with at Rutgers have found that a systematic process of breathing for 20 minutes twice a day at a pace that’s known as your resonant, or ideal, frequency — about six breaths per minute — can moderate stress, lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and strengthen your HRV. That means the next time something stressful happens, you can let go of it and move forward much faster, because you’ve trained your body to respond in this new way. The science shows that this method improves your mood, enhances focus, helps you sleep better, boosts energy, and makes you more resilient overall.”