Breathing is essential to our existence! But not all breaths are the same! In times of stress, the way we breathe can make the difference between being overwhelmed or bouncing back. Changing the way we breathe changes our stress response and cultivate resilience.
The stress response “fight or flight” is an unconscious and reflexive physiological response when we perceive a challenge or threat. This automatic response from the autonomic nervous system, cause quick changes to prepare the body to deal with stressful events. External situations like a looming deadline or internal event such as worrying about losing a job can trigger an avalanche of stress hormones that produces a group of physiological changes such as heart pounding, muscle tension and fast shallow breathing.
This same stress response allowed our ancestors and other mammals to survive because it enabled them to react quickly to life threatening situations such as fighting a bear or fleeing to safety. Today, in the 21st century, the body is still reacting the way it did thousands of years ago when we are stuck in traffic jams, feeling pressured at work or dealing with a difficult person. The stress response is still useful today, helping us to react quickly in times of high demands. But difficulties arise when this response is constantly provoked by major or minor challenges and we find ourselves in a constant state of hyperarousal. We can be stuck in the stress response where we experience an ongoing state of anxiety and continue to engage unconsciously in shallow breathing throughout the day which maintains the physiological stress response. This increases the chances of experiencing breathing difficulties such as hyperventilation or an anxiety/panic attack. Therefore, it is helpful to understand how the stress response affects us and how we can modify it so that it works in our favour and is not a hindrance. This is when noticing the way we breathe become important!
We can breathe unconsciously just like we can breathe consciously. Of all the physical stress reactions, the one that we can change most readily is our breath. When we choose to breathe in the opposite way to the stress response, we begin to reduce the impact that stress has on our physiology. It is like a reset switch!
So in the stress response, we breathe fast, shallow and mostly using the upper chest. So by breathing slowly, with long exhale and inhaling all the way into the lower part of the lungs, using the abdominal muscles, we send messages to our brain to activate the “relaxation response”. That is when we take a long breath out, our diaphragm contracts which then stimulate the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system to activate the physiological “rest and restore” response. In also helps the mind to slow down, to be calmer and gain more perspective.
To summarise when we are stressed, we tend to breathe shallow, using the upper chest muscles, breathe fast, with larger inhale then exhaling. The purpose of intentional abdominal breathing is to reduce the stress response, by reversing this way of breathing with a slower breathing pace, using the abdominal muscles, where the exhale is longer than the inhale to restore a sense of calm.
Belly breathing also called diaphragmatic breathing aiming to extend and contract the diaphragm (a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity) by raising the abdominal muscles so the air moves in all the way into the bottom of the lungs. That is, the air enters the lungs and the lower chest fills up while the belly expands. This is a natural and relaxed form of breathing for all mammals. We tend to breathe this way when we are asleep.
Practicing regular intentional belly breathing has many physical and psychological health benefits. Just practising 10-15 minutes a day helps to handle stress more effectively and promote better overall health and well-being. A great deal of research has been conducted to demonstrate the benefits of diaphragm/belly breathing. Belly breathing exercises relax the body and when practised daily can ease the symptoms associated with stress, such as high blood pressure, headaches, stomach conditions, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and so on. As well it is helpful for conditions such as asthma and other respiratory functions by strengthening the deeper muscles associated with breathing. Many athletes include abdominal breathing in their training to increase their capacity for physical exercise. Belly breathing is beneficial for the body as well as the mind. As you slow the breathing down your body relaxes and your memory and cognitive functions improve, promoting better concentration, more effective problem solving, so we can behave with more confidence.
So next time when you feel stressed or overwhelmed, pause, take a long exhale and will feel the benefit of activating your calming vagus nerve. As anxiety arises, acknowledge the feeling of tension and whatever is happening in your body avoiding gasping for air or take in a big breath but focussing more on the exhale. You can start by softening the shoulders, then gently breathing out a long exhale through your mouth, contracting the belly as you exhale, and then breathing in, a small low breath in, through the nose, just enough to raise the belly, as if you were breathing into a balloon, holding for a moment, and then breathing out another long exhale, while squeezing the belly flat as you breathe out.
In order to fully reverse the stress response, you can pace your breathing by counting.
Longer exhale than inhale will relax the body and mind. After you may want to return to an even rhythm of belly breathing. Breathing through the nose, counting slowly 4-7 as you breathe in, pausing a little and 4-7 as you breathe out, with belly gently rising and falling as you breathe.
You can practice breathing in this way when you are waiting for something, sitting in your car, or before a meal or as you go to bed. You can also belly breathe when you are starting to notice that you are feeling stressed such as before an important meeting or interviews. When you are beginning to feel a little tense remember to slow down the breathing beginning with a long exhale, blowing the air slowly out of your mouth, and then breathe in through the nose and out with your belly. In this way, you can remain calmer with greater clarity of mind.
Belly breathing soothes the nervous system, easing daily stress, and calms the mind. The more often you will practice this, the more you will begin to naturally and spontaneously breathe in this way so at times it can become your dominant way of breathing. We would encourage you to take 10-15minutes a day to practice. With focus and persistence, the practice of belly breathing becomes easier and more automatic.
This way of breathing is also very helpful for children to learn to be calmer in times of frustrations and stress. In the evening before they go to bed you can do this fun activity with them.
You can invite everyone to lie on their back with a favourite object/toy or teddy resting on their belly. The aim is to slowly raise the object as you are breathing in, holding up for a few second and then to lower the object slowly as you are breathing out. You can introduce counting as you raise, hold and lower the object on your belly. Repeating this for 3-4 breaths. Then returning to a more even pace of breathing by counting to 4 as they breathe in and out for a few more breaths.
You are free to listen to following two guided relaxation exercises of belly/diaphragm breathing presented below.
Initially, it may be easier to practice belly breathing lying down and then after a while doing the practice sitting or standing. If you experience a great deal of agitation or discomfort, it is best to stop this exercise and instead have a sip of water and go for a walk. This advice in this blog, audio and video is of a general nature only and does not take into account particular conditions. For further assistance contact a general practitioner or psychologist.
Short Calming Belly Breathing Exercise (9 min)
In this short calming belly breathing we are introducing the abdominal/diaphragm breathing to turn off stress to promote calm.
Complete Calming Belly Breathing Exercise (17 min)
In this relaxation exercise we extend the practice of abdominal/diaphragm breathing to promote a deeper relaxation response.
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