Stress and breathing are inextricably linked—high stress leads to shallow breathing and shallow breathing leads to—you guessed it—more stress.
Most of us don’t give much thought to our breath, believing that it’s something that happens involuntarily—and to some degree, that is true. Breathing is an automatic body function controlled by the respiratory center of the brain. Breathing allows for the exchange of gases—our cells need to take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide.
Proper breathing not only allows for the exchange of gas, but it also soothes the autonomic nervous system. When we breathe correctly, we use our abdomen and diaphragm to suck air into the lungs (via inhalation) and push it out (via exhalation). Relaxed and proper breathing is slow, steady, and easy.
The stress response can cause the breathing pattern to change. People who are under stress typically take small, shallow breaths from the upper chest. If you watch someone who is stressed, they often use their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of the lungs.
Shallow breathing empties too much carbon dioxide out of the blood, which upsets the body’s balance of gases. While shallow breathing is often a result of stress, it can also cause more stress in the body, resulting in fatigue, tension, anxiety, and other symptoms. Consistent shallow and rapid breathing creates a prolonged state of stress.
Stress can be managed and reduced with proper breathing. Although breathing is an automatic body function, we can control it. With a little awareness, we can consciously shift into abdominal breathing, which has been shown to calm the autonomic nervous system and create a relaxation response. Abdominal breathing has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. Furthermore, it boosts the immune system and promotes a sense of calm.
Breathing is one of the best stress management tools out there—it’s simple, quick, and free, and can be practiced anywhere at any time. There are many different breathing and relaxation techniques and each of them has value. Anything that helps you shift from upper chest breathing to abdominal breathing will help reduce stress and promote relaxation. Try this:
- Sit or lie down in a quiet, relaxed environment
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
- Close your mouth.
- Inhale slowly through your nose and focus on feeling your abdomen rise into your hand. (Try to keep the hand on your chest still.)
- Sometimes it helps to place a rhythm or count to the breath. You could count to six as you inhale, hold the breath for two counts, and then count to six as you exhale.
- Focus on slow, deep, rhythmic breathing.
- Feel the stress and tension melt away from your body.