How breath works with stress and how you can use that to your advantage to help calm it down.
How Stress & Anxiety Works in our Body
We evolved as early humans able to deal with stress as a matter of survival. Our instincts enabled us to respond quickly to help us run away from a predator, freeze or defend ourselves.
The way our body responds in a flash to modern day stress today runs the same ‘fight or flight’ response using the sympathetic nervous system. You’ll notice this in all sorts of ways – from tension in your muscles, shallow breathing, heart beating faster through to sweaty palms and butterflies in your tummy. All geared to helping us move (and fast), stay incredibly still or fight our way out of it.
This system kicks in, not just to the stuff we see or hear but to the things we think about and anticipate. Our brains literally cannot tell the difference between real and imagined threats and our stress response is stimulated when we do this. In a way, that’s a good thing as it’s useful to anticipate a potential threat and head it off. For many of us though it can lead to feeling worn out if we feel constantly dragged down by an undercurrent of it.
The sources of our stress today are often things we can’t escape from (at least in the short term), like an annoying co-worker, awful economic news or a crowded tube train (actual or expected). The constant triggering of our stress response is detrimental to our well being. It also results in behaviour we don’t want. As you’re reading about those scenarios you may even have started your own cascade of a stress response – sorry about that!
How To Use Breath to Calm Stress & Anxiety
Just as our incredible biology came up with a nifty way to handle threats, we also have another part of our nervous system to bring us back into balance once the threat is over. It’s called the parasympathetic nervous system.
One of the first ways our sympathetic nervous system responds to a threat is to stimulate breathing in quickly (usually from our chest in a shallow way). It does this to get more oxygen into our system to go to the muscles for running away. Useful, except it can also result in hyperventilating, a full-blown panic attack and other unhelpful behaviours.
Fortunately, there’s a corresponding part of the nervous system to bring us back into balance. This makes use of the parasympathetic nervous system and to trigger this we just need to breath out in way our brain can interpret as “hello, move along, nothing to worry about here”.
We can counter stress ourselves (real or imagined) by breathing out for longer than our in-breath. It really helps too if we can make as much use of our diaphragm as possible, without straining, to make the most of the space in our body for breath. You can see this for yourself if you put a hand on your tummy and try to breath that area out so your hands rise up as you breath in – it’s amazing how much more breath you can take in with that space. It’s even more more effective if you can practice doing that through your nose. If you’re familiar with yoga you may have practiced this by breathing up one nostril and down the other in a class which is a wonderful way to de-stress.
There’s a fancy name for this of course, it’s called 7/11 breathing which refers to breathing in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11. If you’re like me you might find this a tall order, so when I’m working with clients I help them develop their own comfortable way of doing this. Either breathing in for 5 and out for 9 or by breathing out 2 to 4 breaths longer than they breathe in. As you do this try and make the breaths more and more even, slow it right down, use more and more of your tummy to breath out and ‘ground’ yourself. You can make it even more delightful by imagining yourself in your own version of a safe and relaxing place as you’re doing this.
So do yourself a favour, try this at least once a day and give yourself a break from the stressy cave man breathing. The more you do this the better and the next time you’re jammed up against someone on the Tube you know what to do!
Here's an audio download I created to guide you through this wonderful relaxing breathing technique which you can take with you to use on your phone or MP3 player.
Please only listen to this recording when you are in a safe place (not when you’re driving, operating machinery or doing anything else you need to pay attention to). Some people find it best to listen to through headphones to minimise distraction.
This recording is for your personal use and must not be copied or sold under any circumstances.
I would love to hear from you with your feedback and comments!