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Student Life during lockdown getting you down? Just breathe….

How breathing techniques can aid mindfulness and a healthy mind and body

So, you’ve just started uni and should be making new friends, going to lectures, meeting people in cafes and bars and generally enjoying what are supposed to be the best days of your life. But, then lockdown hits and the reality is lots of time spent on your own, trying to organise your time without much face to face contact with tutors, studying alone and, let’s face it, not the social life you were hoping for.

So, it wouldn’t be surprising if you are feeling a little down, maybe even anxious and stressed about your studies and your life and maybe it’s all getting a little too much.

“What’s the problem?” friends and family say. “You’ve got loads of time to study”. “Just get your head down and concentrate on the course”.

But you’re not getting the one to one with tutors you had hoped for. There’s no one to talk to about things you don’t understand about your work. Chats over a coffee about how the tackle the next assignment are few and far between.

All this can take its toll on your mental health. The mind, just like the body, needs to be exercised and trained. Without a little control, the mind has a nasty habit of wandering and thinking all those fearful thoughts that get you down. It’s not that those fears and worries aren’t real and that they don’t need to be dealt with, but sometimes, when the fear sets in, we begin to react to worries in unproductive ways.

This is where mindfulness training can help. Learning through breathing techniques to still the mind and give ourselves a break from the worries we have, even if it’s just for 15 mins a day, can be restorative and healing.

Breathing techniques have been used for centuries to help aid restfulness, to de-stress and to train the mind to be still. Ancient yogis used breathing techniques to begin their meditative practices, to ascend the everyday and find the ultimate peace. Don’t worry, you don’t necessarily have to be aiming for the ultimate transcendental bliss to benefit from breathing techniques. They can be used just to still the mind, relax and give yourself a mental recharge.

This stilling of the mind and body through breath also slows lots of the chemical reactions of the nervous system. When we are anxious or stressed the body’s endocrine system responds by releasing adrenaline. This is the primeval fight or flight response. The body is literally preparing to either fight that sabre-toothed tiger or try and outrun it. But if we are not actually going to fight or run all that adrenalin can actually be very destructive. It is bad for the immune system and interferes with a healthy metabolism. Neither are good.

But, when we slow our breathing rate down we initiate a chain of responses that reverse the fight or flight mechanism. The heart rate slows down, adrenaline production slows and the body moves from a state of readiness with all the nervous energy that entails, to one of rest and calm.

When we are in this calmer state of mind and we have control over the mind and the body, we are in a much better position to analyse situations, make sense of what is happening around us and make positive and balanced judgements. We are also in a better state of mind to learn, take on new ideas and be productive and creative.

So, what are breathing techniques and how do you do it?

Quite simply you can begin by lying back in a comfortable position, closing your eyes and concentrating on your breath. Notice the speed of your breath. Is it fast or slow? Notice where your breath goes. Are you breathing into your chest or higher, maybe right under the collar bones? When we are anxious, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths into the chest. The more anxious we are the higher the breath is and the shallower it becomes. This is very ineffective breathing. We are taking in very little oxygen per breath, which is why we have to take more breaths.

Now think of how babies breathe. They lie on their backs and breathe deep into their bellies letting them descend and expand slowly. Babies haven’t learnt the shallow, anxious breath of a stressed-out adult. Babies are actually very efficient breathers.

So, the first thing to do is try and breathe like a baby. Take the breath deep into the belly. Let the belly fill like a balloon. Feel it descend and expand as the diaphragm lowers. Then let a long, slow breath out feeling the navel lower towards the spine. Take another breath like this into the belly. Just slowing and deepening the breath can have an instant calming effect. It’s a good thing to do whenever you are nervous, like just before an exam or a job interview for instance.

Next, still lying down with your eyes closed, take a few more deep breaths into the belly and start to count the breath in and out. See if you can make your breath even, so the same count in as out. Then see if you can make the breath out longer than the breath in.

Feeling a bit more relaxed now?

Try inhaling deep into your belly for a count of six, hold for a count of two then exhale for a count of six. Repeat this for a few breaths.

Taking control of your breath in this way slows the mind and slows the body. Focusing on the breath stops your mind from wandering to all that chitter chatter for just a few minutes and allows the thoughts to still.

If the mind does wander when you are doing this, and it probably will when this practice is new to you, remember you are training your mind just like you train a muscle and it will be weak at first, acknowledge the thought, it is something you will deal with later, and allow it to go. Don’t follow it.

Sometimes using a visual image can help focus the mind on the breath and stop the invasion of those thoughts. Try imagining that the belly is a balloon. When you inhale the balloon fills and when you exhale it empties. Choose your favourite colour for this balloon and imagine it getting lighter and lighter as it fills and darker and darker as it empties.

Take a few more breaths deep into the belly and enjoy those feelings of relaxation!

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