Take a breath: How the simple act of meditative breathing helps us cope

(CNN)A global pandemic causes so much worry, concern and fear. There's the pressure of suddenly being a homeschooling parent and trying to create structure around newfound chaos in your home.

A lot of us are adjusting to working from home, all while tending to worries about the state of the world. Maybe you fret over the health of aging parents or feel anxious over the ever-changing news cycle.
Psychological stress can damper your overall health, affecting your ability to remain resilient in the face of challenges. It can also thwart a strong immune system, which is needed to keep from getting sick.
"Living through a pandemic can be scary," said CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the March 18 episode of CNN's "Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction" podcast.
    The good news: Meditation is one tool that can help our immune systems functioning optimally, according to a recent study.
    One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is by simply focusing your attention on your breath, according to Harvard Medical School, since it's a form of beginner level meditation that anyone can do.
    Alternative medicine advocate Dr. Deepak Chopra, in Dr. Gupta's podcast episode titled "Pandemic Panic," walks us through how to do a breathing meditation to ease our stress, thus calming our minds.

    Breathing through the stress of a pandemic

    According to Harvard Medical School, breathing meditation requires either sitting comfortably, standing or walking in a setting with minimal distractions. Many people prefer to sit.
    If you're sitting, focus first on your posture: You should sit with your spine erect.
    As you become aware of the space you're in and sit comfortably, observe your breath without manipulating it for a few seconds, Chopra suggests.
    Then, slow your breath down by inhaling deeply to the count of six.
    Pause for two seconds.
    Exhale to the count of four. Then repeat this six-two-four breathing method for two minutes.
    "Then, when you're done with that, bring your awareness into your body and wherever there seems to be any discomfort, just bring the awareness there without manipulating it," Chopra said. "Awareness by itself heals. Awareness without conceptual intervention restores self-regulation."
    "The goal is really to breathe from your diaphragm," as opposed to shallow breaths from your chest, said Vaile Wright, a psychologist and director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.
    "And the way to know whether you're doing that or not, or a trick at least, is to place your hand just below your ribs on your stomach." When you inhale you should feel your body expanding, then contracting when you inhale.
    If the initial peace is interrupted by your thoughts, the meditation isn't a failure. Though breathing meditations are simple to begin with, they can take practice before you're able to maintain focus for an extended period of time, Wright said. Just acknowledge the thought and try to let it go.
    You don't have to concentrate on any format, but some people find that adding some sort of mantra or visualization to it helps, Wright said.
    "For example, when you're breathing in, telling yourself [in your head that] you're breathing in love. When you're exhaling, telling yourself you're exhaling anxiety. Or, breathing in positive energy, exhaling negative energy or visualizing negative energy coming out of your mouth and out of your body."
    Chopra starts his day with three or four intentions: "I'm going to maintain a joyful, energetic body today; a loving and compassionate heart today; a reflective and quiet and creative and centered mind today; and lightness of being and laughter today, whatever it takes."
    By doing these intentions, you can start to feel better, he said.
    Modern technology offers up apps and smart watches that can help guide you through a meditation if you have trouble staying focused.
    "Slow your breath, your thoughts will slow down as well," Chopra said.

    Benefits for your overall health

    Breathing meditations can contribute to a state of mindfulness by bringing your focus to one thing and only thing only -- your breath, Wright said.
    "The goal of that is to draw your attention away from maybe worry thoughts you're having or sort of the catastrophic thoughts or maybe depressing thoughts about feeling alone," she added. When you're focusing, those thoughts can be pushed aside, helping you to control your emotions.
    Mindfulness has been found to influence two stress pathways in the brain, altering brain structure and activity in regions that regulate attention and emotion, according to the American Psychological Association.
    In a 2015 review of studies on the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), researchers found that people who received this therapy were less likely to respond to stressful situations with negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions.
    Those participants were also more likely to focus on the present moment and less likely to experience ruminating thoughts.
    Breathing meditations can also reduce muscle tension and your heart rate, which are signs of stress, Wright said.

    Carrying yourself through a hard time

    Breathing meditations are another tool you can add to your coping toolkit, which may also include journaling, baking or virtually connecting with others.
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      "What's great about breathing is you can do it anywhere," Wright said. "If music is your way of relaxing, what happens when you don't have access to it? You always have access to your breathing, so in that sense [breathing meditations] are really portable and very accessible. We really need a variety of different coping skills in order to get through particularly unprecedented situations like this one."
      Mindfulness may not make everything go away, Wright said, but it can bring you to a "calmer state so that you're better able to deal with all the stress that's going on."