A sneaky trick for feeling calmer at the shops

The loudspeaker was blaring. The check-out assistant was talking. The scanner was beeping. My four year-old was whinging. My mobile was ringing. And my head was spinning.

I wanted to scream, ‘STOP!’

Instead, I breathed.

Yes, by some stroke of magic in that crazy meltdown moment, I remembered that breathing deeply right down into my belly might bring blessed relief. And so I breathed – long, slow, steady breaths.

And gradually, against the ongoing backdrop of blaring, talking, beeping, whinging, and ringing, my head slowly began to stop spinning. I felt grounded, like my feet were firmly planted on the floor and my brain was back in my skull.

Of course, to the passerby, I totally looked like I was still dealing with everything going on. I didn’t drop into the lotus position and start chanting 'om' as I breathed. I simply started breathing right where I was: right in the middle of the busy supermarket – and boy, it felt so good.

Why did I do it? Because right there in that frenetic setting, I knew I couldn’t control any of the external stressors (not the noise, not the drama, not the barrage of stimulation in the brightly lit room), but I could control my response to them.

And it worked.

I paid the check-out assistant and we moved calmly on into our day.

I was able to sort out my cranky child, calmly.

I was able to remember what else I had to buy, calmly.

And I was able to feel some semblance of control in an otherwise chaotic (and hugely common) scenario.

Can you relate?

My ‘supermarket breathing’ is actually known as diaphragmatic (or abdominal) breathing. Harvard physician Dr Sara Gottfried calls it ‘one of the five proven mind/body practices that regulate cortisol’ (and as we know, cortisol is the main stress hormone). Yoga, meditation and tai chi all use diaphragmatic breathing.

The key is to gently guide the breath all the way into your diaphragm (so your belly visibly expands) and then out again (so your belly contracts).

Dr Sara says: “When we breathe shallowly all day, similar to a rabbit, emergency ‘sensors’ alert the body that we’re under attack and need a constant flow of adrenaline and cortisol. Instead, when you breathe into the lower lobes of the lungs, calming sensors tell your body to settle down. Breathing through the nose, slowly and deeply, is especially effective in triggering the calm response.”

Diaphragmatic breathing works best when done regularly, at least once a day. Some experts suggest once every hour (but remembering that could possibly be counterproductive, causing more stress than it cures!).

Dr Libby Weaver says just five minutes every day is a powerful force for good health. “Diaphragmatic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows our bodies to go into rest and repair mode – essential for immune function, digestion, restful sleep and a great mood – as it communicates to every cell in your body that you are safe. We cannot access this part of our nervous system with our thoughts, only via how we breathe. It is amazing what our bodies can do with just a few minutes of calming, diaphragmatic breathing each day.”

So how is it done? In this how-to, chiropractor Dr Peter J Braglia explains it like this:

  1. Get into position: stand (or sit up) straight and drop your shoulders back and down.
  2. Inhale slowly through your nose trying to get the air down as far as possible into your belly. You’ll see your belly push out and that’s normal.
  3. Pause for a second or less.
  4. Exhale slowly through your nose. This should last twice as long as the inhalation.
  5. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

The great thing is no-one knows you’re doing it, unless they’re paying close attention. So it works a treat in public places like the supermarket (better than those other treats you might be tempted to throw into your trolley to beat the stress!).

So try it and see. Let me know how you go. 


Natalie Bartley