A Simple Breathing Practice to Lower Stress Levels
6-3-9 Meditation: How to Use Your Breath for Relaxation
Stress is something that affects many people, and if experienced for prolonged periods of time, it can have very negative impacts on our mental and physical health. When we experience stress, the body undergoes a series of changes that help us to act in dangerous situations. For example, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These are all helpful when needed to take quick action, but when experienced in our day to day life, these changes in the body can be damaging to our health.
Thankfully, there are ways that we can reduce stress naturally, and even ways we can do so for free using things as simple as our own breathing. In this article, we will discuss one meditation practice that can actually help you to override the body’s stress response by activating the body’s restorative response.
A Meditation Practice for Reducing Stress
This meditation is known as the “6-3-9 Meditation” practice, and it is a simple practice that utilizes the breath as a focal point for our attention. In this practice, we simply breathe in, hold our breath, and exhale, releasing the breath—and we do so in a ratio of 6-3-9. So, we breathe in for a count of 6 seconds, hold our breath for a count of 3 seconds, and exhale for a count of 9 seconds.
How Does It Work?
This retention of the breath for 3 seconds, and the following 9 second exhalation, helps to relax our parasympathetic nervous system. Whenever we exhale for longer than we inhale, we stimulate the vagus nerve, which is a very large nerve, originating in the brainstem, and extending down the body, to the heart, the lungs, and the digestive system.
Understanding the Nervous System
The nervous system is divided into two parts, the Central Nervous System (CNS), and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS). The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord, the PNS consists of the many nerves that spread throughout the body and send messages to and from the CNS.
The PNS itself is divided into two subdivisions, the somatic nervous system and the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is further divided into two subdivisions, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic division initiates the fight-or-flight response and the parasympathetic initiates the rest-and-digest response. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system helps us initiate action, while the parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax and restore.
This meditative breathing practice stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and helps us relax and restore. It does this by directly influencing the vagus nerve, which is the largest nerve associated with the parasympathetic nervous system. The practice also helps us focus our awareness on the present moment by synchronizing our attention with our breathing, and keeping the mind focused in the present moment is also a way to naturally reduce our stress, as much of our stress comes from our overthinking and wandering mind.
How to Practice
The meditation practice is very simple. All you do is:
- Sit down in a comfortable position, whether it’s on the floor or in a chair.
- Sit with your spine straight but relaxed. Don’t hold any unnecessary tension in your muscles.
- Gently close your eyes.
- Breath in slowly for a count of 6 seconds.
- Hold the breath for a count of 3 seconds.
- Exhale the breath slowly for a count of 9 seconds.
- This completes one round.
- Repeat as many times as you’d like, but aim to do a minimum of 9 rounds to allow your body and brain to slow down and relax.
Through this meditation practice, you can “hack” your physiology with intentional breathing. Simply by breathing slow, deep and relaxed breaths, and breathing out for a longer of duration of time than you breathe in, you can stimulate the vagus nerve, and can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s natural “rest-and-digest” response.