The concept of breathing sounds as primal as eating and drinking.  Without it, we couldn’t survive. You would think that it doesn’t require any skill. 

Infants use their chest and abdominal muscles when they cry for nourishment.

Children hold their breath during temper tantrums.

Regular exercisers aim for higher aerobic or vigorous anaerobic thresholds to burn calories or build endurance.

Subconsciously, we use our breath to endure stressful situations.  If we perceive our life situations as chronically stressful, we can become chronically-stressed breathers, which in turn can fuel our stress and anxiety levels. It doesn’t take much to fuel our stress levels – on a daily basis, we’re dealing with rush hour traffic, a highly-demanding job, balancing our personal and professional lives, tending to our kids, trying to pay the bills, and more. If we aren’t careful, we can turn this breath-stress issue into a perpetual destructive cycle.

Stress: The Mind-Body Connection

Human kidneys and adrenals

When the brain detects a “threat,” the adrenals, located on top of the kidneys, send cortisol into the body to prepare it to flee a perceived danger. Image credit: eraxion / 123RF Stock Photo

Humans, like all animals, are hard-wired in the brain for survival. Under threatening or stressful situations, the brain sends messages to the adrenals, which then release cortisol into the body. Cortisol increases your energy levels, cognitive functioning and focus, shuts down the gut, redirects blood flow from the brain to your extremities, and decreases your pain threshold – all so you can flee from a dangerous situation.

When perceived threats become chronic, the body starts to show stress.  Adrenals, strained from working in “emergency” mode, begin to fatigue, and the excess cortisol, designed for short-term survival, begins to take its toll on the endocrine system and various organs.  You can then end up with a variety of physiological symptoms, including anxiety, headaches, body aches, sleep insomnia, increased/decreased appetite, and shallow/rapid breathing. The body, mind, and breath are intertwined. Once the system is thrown off balance by chronic stress, shallow breathing, initially triggered by the brain and adrenals, can actually intensify anxiety and the fight/flight reflex.

Because of the mind-body connection, you can consciously calm the mind using a variety of breathing techniques and meditation.  Once you calm the brain, you engage the body’s relaxation response, controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system.  The adrenals slow down, cortisol levels plunge, your heart rate drops, blood pressure stabilizes, muscles relax, and the blood supply is redirected from your limbs to your brain and gut.

Identify Unhealthy Breathing Clues

Being mindful of how you breathe will help you become aware of how it affects your mood, and what you can do to improve your body’s overall well being.  Unhealthy breathing habits can be identified in some of the following ways:

  • Do you clench your teeth or jaw when stressed or busy?
  • Are you a fast talker? Notice if you gulp for air or take deep sudden breaths to keep a conversation going. Do others ask you to slow down when you are talking?
  • Shallow breathing:  Take a minute to consider HOW you breathe.  Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest.  Close your eyes and breathe normally. Pay attention to the movement of your abdomen and chest. If you find you are breathing more into your upper chest, and/or if you do not inhale much air volume, then you are a shallow breather.  People who breathe like this can, in extremely stressful situations, hyperventilate from the chest.
  • Pace:  Tune into the pace of your breathing.  Quicker breathing denotes stress and activity, while slower, deep breaths signal relaxation and calm.
  • Do you hold your breath?  If you’re tense or stressed, notice if you practice this instinctual response.  Doing so also raises your blood pressure.
  • Watch your caffeine consumption. Excess caffeine can influence stress levels and stressful breathing.

Caution: If you are exhibiting unusual breathing patterns, have chest pains or are having difficulty breathing, please contact your medical provider immediately. These symptoms may be signs of a serious illness.

Time to Breathe In… and Out…

Find a private place where you are free to practice breathing without any interruptions and get into a comfortable seated or supine position. Start practicing the following techniques for 5-10 minutes, twice daily. Over a period of time, you’ll feel more centered and less prone to feeling stressed.

The brain can influence the body -- but breathing can tame the brain if it feels stress.  Image credit: pixologic / 123RF Stock Photo</a

The brain can influence the body — but breathing can restore equilibrium by influencing the body’s parasympathetic nervous response, also known as the relaxation response. Image credit: pixologic / 123RF Stock Photo

Step I: Release Hidden Tensions

This exercise is a great way to release jitters, any held tension, anxiety, and unprocessed anger.  *Note: If you have unmedicated high blood pressure, do not hold your breath – simply follow the tension portion of the exercise:

  • Take a deep breath in and hold it.
  • Tense your feet, legs and buttocks. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Release. Notice a surge of energy released through the lower half of your body.

 

  • Take another deep breath in and hold it.
  • Tense your abdomen, back, fists, arms, shoulders, and face. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Release. Notice a surge of energy released through the upper half of your body.

 

  • Now repeat this exercise by taking a deep breath in, holding it, and tensing the ENTIRE BODY. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Release. Notice a surge of energy released through the entire body.
  • Let any remaining tension drain from the body into the ground. Feel the energy leaving your body.

Step II: Relax with the Full Yogic Breath and Counted Breathing

  • Get into a comfortable seated position (or lay down) and close your eyes. Keeping the jaw loose, breathe in slowly and deeply through the nose, filling the belly, lower lungs, and upper lungs. Do not strain.
  • Slowly exhale through the nose in a steady, uniform stream. Keep breathing this way for a few repetitions.  If the mind wanders, focus on the movement of the abdomen and chest as you breathe in and out.
  • Begin counting the length of the inhalations and exhalations. The exhalation will be longer than the inhalation. Remember to keep the breathing steady and slow. Focus on the breath so the mind doesn’t wander. Silently count the breaths this way:
  • Inhale 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Exhale 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes.

Step III: “Digest” the Effects of Your Breathing

Once you are breathing normally, focus on how the body feels.  Do the muscles feel more relaxed?  Does the body feel heavier or lighter? Does the mind feel more at ease? Enjoy the moment and “digest” the effects of your breathing. If you need to add more rounds of full yogic or counted breathing, continue to do so. Remember to focus your attention on the breathing, or the movement of the abdomen and chest.

This type of breathing may seem contrived at first, but as you get used to it, you’ll notice its relaxing benefits.

References & Reading:

Surprisingly High Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression in Chronic Breathing Disorders

Hyperventilation

Harvard Medical School: Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response

Harvard Medical School: Understanding the Stress Response

Yoga for anxiety and depression

Anxiety Always Comes with Shallow Breathing

iRest Yoga-Nidra on the College Campus: Changes in Stress, Depression, Worry, and Mindfulness

Breathing Exercises for Relaxation

Symptoms & Causes of Shallow Breathing

Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system.

The Stress Response and its Effects on Breathing

Cortisol and Stress: How Cortisol Levels Affect the Body

Time to See the Doctor

Breathing Difficulty

Abnormal Respiration

Irregular Breathing