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  • Beth Ott

A Single Breath: The Easiest Way to Reduce Stress

Big breath in . . . . . . Big breath out

Inhale . . . . . . Fill your lungs all the way up

Exhale . . . . . . Let it all out

One last breath . . . . . And exhale

I stood in front of my class, looking out at a lackluster group of students. We were supposed to be moving into discussion groups for the reading that was due. I had some activities to foster analysis of characters and wanted to dissect the authors plot choices. But based on the 36 sets of averted eyes, I was beginning to believe that wasn’t going to happen. I began to ask them why they weren’t ready when they erupted in a cacophony of excuses. “We didn’t have enough time,” (Lies) “I thought the discussion was tomorrow,” (Also lies) “This book is boring!” (MORE LIES). An angry response was being formulated in my head, and I could feel my heart beat faster and shoulders set.

Our breath is a powerful force, inescapable. Unconsciously, it runs in the background of our daily activities, like the comforting music your grandma always has playing. And in a world where our attention is required at every turn, not having to attend to our breath is a welcome reprieve.

So why should you focus on your breath?

Breathing, deep intentional breathing, is one of the easiest ways to regulate our nervous systems. If you want to get all sciency about it, focused deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports relaxation, rest, and digestion. Just taking a breath tells your body to pause. When we take this deep breath, it’s almost impossible to activate our fight-or-flight response at the same time (sympathetic nervous system), which is what makes our heart rate quicken and increases our blood pressure. Now, sometimes this is a good response, like when we are getting ready for an athletic event. But unless you are needing to hype yourself up for a fight on a regular basis, we need to practice purposely activating our parasympathetic nervous system when we’re just trying to live life. Stress and emotions can creep into our daily routines, and before we know it, we are tense, edgy, and exhausted. It’s remarkable to imagine that just taking an intentional breath can promote relaxation.

As a teacher, this lesson is two-fold for me. When students are starting to threaten tyranny, I quite literally take a step back and take a breath. This prevents me from making irrational decisions, like assigning a 12 page paper because no one did their assigned reading (Do I really want to grade 36 12-page papers?!). It allows me to consider what is really happening, while monitoring my emotions. Breathing has supported me in a variety of other ways. Before I have a difficult conversation with a student or family, I take a breath. Before I support a student who is really struggling emotionally or behaviorally, I take a breath. Before I meeting with support staff who are questioning student’s abilities, I take a breath.

I think modeling this and offering it up to students as well could be beneficial by refocusing the group after they come back inside from recess or after heated discussions regarding current affairs. Or to ground students at the beginning of the day. Or to calm an anxious or emotional kiddo. It doesn’t take much time and doesn’t need any additional equipment.

So the next time you start to feel your heart rate increase, your palms sweat, or your jaw tense, try to pause and take a deep, slow breath (or three).

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