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How to Reduce Stress - Part 1, Breathe

Blog Post by Oran Aviv

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the impact of chronic stress on our lives and showed how my own stress-induced behaviors resembled those observed in individuals living with dementia. You can revisit that discussion here:  Is it Dementia or Stress


Fear, anger, and chronic stress can also disrupt our sleep patterns. Despite having shared various tips in past Sleep blog posts to aid in falling asleep, staying asleep, and returning to sleep, there are moments of heightened stress where additional tools are essential to help us catch our breath and calm our thoughts.


In this blog post, I share the exercises I developed for myself to deal with the most challenging days of stress. Each tip to reduce stress comes with a detailed explanation, accompanied by a video clip. I invite you to try these techniques and share your experience either in the comment section below or in the corresponding video clips. Your feedback is important. Thanks.



Hand Reflex Point for Stress

If you've been following my blog posts and videos, you've likely seen me discuss the solar plexus reflex point on the hand for relaxation. I frequently use this point for centering before Validating someone with dementia, and I combine it with other hand reflex points for specific conditions. Often, our physical well-being is compromised during times of stress.


What is the Solar Plexus? The solar plexus, also known as the celiac plexus, is a complex network of nerves situated between your ribcage and navel. If you've ever been struck in this area and felt the wind knocked out of you, you've located your solar plexus.

This network of nerves, including the Vagus Nerve, plays an important role in the body's response to stress.

Where is the Solar Plexus?

To locate the solar plexus reflex, slide your finger down from the space between your middle and ring fingers till you pass over the fleshy area under your fingers.

© Hands-on Dementia for Caregivers, A step-by-step guide to learn 3 reflex points to help your loved one and yourself


How to Work the Solar Plexus Reflex Point on Your Left Hand:

1.    Place your right thumb on the solar plexus reflex on your left hand.

2.    Wrap the rest of your right hand's fingers around the back of your left hand.

3.    No need to press; let your thumb rest on the solar plexus reflex point.

4.    If lying on your back, keep your thumb on your solar plexus point and let your hands drop onto your belly.  If sitting, let your hands drop onto your lap. 


While keeping your thumb on the solar plexus reflex point:

  • Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth; repeat this three times.

  • Switch to the right hand and repeat the process.


Watch the Solar Plexus Hand Reflexology video



You can close your eyes during the breathing exercises. Feel your shoulders relax and drop as you exhale. Try to release any anger, fear, or stress you may be holding inside with each exhalation.



Breath Counting Technique for Stress


I turn to this technique when I find myself struggling with difficult thoughts in the middle of the night or during the early hours of the morning.


When waking up under stress or in a state of panic due to challenging circumstances, such as feeling that we or someone we care for is in danger, expecting to engage in deep breathing to calm down and return to sleep may be unrealistic.


If you find yourself awake, keep the lights off to signal to your body that it's still sleep time. Whether you choose to remain lying down or sit up, try this exercise to focus on your breathing.


If possible, inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. While doing this, count each breath—think the number as you inhale and exhale, or even imagine verbalizing the number as you breathe out. Continue this process until you reach 10, then start over. By concentrating solely on your breathing, you may find a reprieve from difficult thoughts and feelings.


If your mind wanders during the exercise, simply restart the count from 1.


After completing a cycle of 10 breaths, you may notice that your breathing becomes slower and, perhaps, deeper.


Today, at 4:30 AM, I awoke upset by yesterday's news. However, by employing this exercise and simultaneously touching the solar plexus reflex point on my hand, I managed to slow down my breath and even fell back asleep till 7:30 AM! This outcome genuinely surprised me, as I'm usually content with gaining just an additional hour after wtih the breathing techniques.


Watch the Breath Counting Technique video

Note: In the video, the sound of my breaths was muted by my microphone, which mistook it for background noise. 😊


Lower Your Shoulders


Tight shoulders have the potential to impact our breathing capacity. The muscles involved in breathing extend beyond those directly associated with the respiratory system, including muscles in the neck, chest, and shoulders. When these muscles are tight or restricted, it can influence the overall mechanics of breathing.


During periods of stress, our shoulders often creep up toward our ears. Elevated shoulders may contribute to shallow breathing, where the chest and shoulders play a more active role than the diaphragm. Shallow breathing can limit the amount of air intake and diminish the efficiency of gas exchange in the lungs.


To assess whether your shoulders have risen to your ears, simply observe yourself in the mirror and take note of how much of your neck is visible. Before sleep, I perform a body scan, focusing on each part of my body and releasing tension where needed.


Starting at my forehead, I check for tension in my brows and clenching in my jaw. I then move to my shoulders, often surprised to find them up near my ears, especially in colder temperatures. Although I continue scanning my body down to my feet, I typically drift off to sleep shortly after releasing tension in my shoulders.


My preferred method of releasing shoulder tension involves a controlled movement. I tense my shoulders up to my ears, then exhale while gently lowering them. I repeat this process several times, inhaling through my nose and exhaling through my mouth as I release my shoulders.


Watch the video on lowering shoulders


After looking at photos from a challenging trail race where breathing was difficult, I realized my shoulders were hiked up to my ears. Recognizing this during the race could have prompted me to pause and relax my upper body. Nowadays, when I run, I conscientiously check my shoulders to ensure stress hasn't caused them to tighten and elevate. 

Oxygenate Your Body and Brain


Breathing techniques that involve focusing on the area around the third eye, associated with the forehead and the space between the eyebrows in certain spiritual and meditative traditions, are often grounded in mindfulness and meditation practices.


While the third eye is not a physiological structure, directing attention to this area is believed by some to yield psychological and stress-reducing benefits.When I focus my breath toward the space between my eyebrows, it induces relaxation and often leads to visual experiences of colors, signifying a deeper state of relaxation for me.


To practice this breathing technique, I gently inhale on a count of 4 through my nostrils, concentrating on directing the breath to my forehead, and then exhale for a count of 4. I repeat this process several times. If I find it challenging to breathe for a count of 4 due to stress, I adjust and begin with counts of 3 or even 2. If the stress is too intense for these shorter counts, I revert to the previously mentioned breathing techniques—“Counting Breaths.”


Watch the video Oxygenate Your Brain


By focusing on breathing between the eyebrows, we can establish a deeper connection to our breath, potentially increasing our total oxygen supply, including to the brain.


Please note - the primary mechanism by which breathing affects oxygenation is through the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. Oxygen does not travel directly from our breath to our brain.


Expand Your Lungs


In my final technique for today, I'd like to share how I work to increase my lung capacity, aiming to breathe deeper to reduce stress. When we are stressed, our breathing tends to become shallower.


Deep breathing, especially when focused on expanding the ribcage, can stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system—the system that aids our body in relaxation.


Opera singers, known for their impressive lung capacity, engage their intercostal muscles to maximize their breath control. These small muscles, located between our ribs, expand and contract our ribcage during breathing, facilitating greater lung volume.


While expanding our ribcage, it's essential to consider the three-dimensional nature of the expansion. Typically, we only think about the front of our ribs, but our ribcage also expands to the side and back. By envisioning this expansion in three dimensions while breathing, we can enhance our lung capacity.


Try this exercise:


  • Place your hands above and below your sternum (breastbone) and breathe to feel your ribs expand in the front.

  • Put your hands on the sides of your ribs, breathe, and feel your ribcage expand to the side.

  • Place your hands on the back of your ribs and breathe to expand the back of your ribcage. If lying down on your back in bed, you can feel your ribcage expand, pushing against the mattress.


Once you've felt the 3D expansion of your ribcage, practice the following breathing technique:


Count 1: Breathe in and extend the front of your chest.

Count 2: Continue breathing in and extend your ribcage in the back.

Count 3: Exhale and release your back.

Count 4: Continue exhaling and release your chest.


Watch the video clip demonstrating how to expand your lungs:


In Conclusion

Stress can lead to shallow breathing, and in turn, shallow breathing can contribute to stress. The relationship between stress and breathing is bidirectional, with each influencing the other.


By taking control of our breathing, we can effectively reduce stress. I personally select from these various techniques based on the state of my breathing. At times, I even combine several techniques to address the specific challenges I'm facing.


It's akin to having a toolbox where I can choose the technique that best helps me relax, depending on the level of stress and the difficulty I'm experiencing in breathing slowly and deeply.


Please let me know if any of these techniques prove helpful for you. Your feedback is invaluable.

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