In our everyday lives, we’re barely conscious of our breathing. However, there’s a powerful connection between your mental state and your respiratory system. One of the physiological reactions to stress (and strong emotions) is rapid breathing, shortness of breath, and the constriction of one’s airways1.
While our fight-or-flight response helps prepare the body for a physical threat, the same physiological stress response is triggered by emotional stress and anxiety2. And when our lives are characterised by constant stress – from traffic, to relationship problems, work challenges, and more – our bodies can also be in a constant, low-grade fight or flight mode.
This can be characterised by shortness of breath and a tight chest as your body is physically preparing to run from a threat. And unfortunately we can’t run from our daily lives (even those work presentations) so it’s important to consciously try and manage that stress reaction – and one highly effective way to do that is by simply focusing on our breathing2.
Focus on your breathing
When the body physically relaxes, it can help the body switch off its stress response. So, take a second now to become aware of your breathing. Is it fast or slow? Does it feel like the air is just in your chest, or can you feel it reaching your diaphragm? Does your chest feel tight?
If you’re anxious or stressed, you’re likely unwittingly in a shallow breathing pattern – also known as chest (or thoracic) breathing. Chest breathing involves rapid, shallow breaths which decrease your body’s oxygen levels3. This creates a stress cycle, where your heart has to beat faster to try and increase oxygen in the body, causing a stress reaction in the brain.
By practicing diaphragmatic breathing – slower, deeper breathing that uses your diaphragm rather than just your chest – you can increase the oxygen levels in your body, and effectively hit the ‘off’ button in your brain to deactivate the stress response.
Studies have shown that the regular use of conscious breathing techniques and exercises can significantly reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety4. Something so simple, yet so impactful. Here are some simple breathing techniques to try. Even just five minutes a day can make a difference.
Know what diaphragmatic breathing feels like
Lie down, or sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor, hip width apart.
- Pay attention to your breathing.
- With one hand on your sternum and one below your rib cage on your stomach, breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose.
- Feel your stomach rise.
- Tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale through your nose or through pursed lips.
- Try to make sure the hand on your stomach is moving more than your chest.
- Repeat another 3-5 times.
Alternate nostril breathing
Another breathing technique recommended for relaxation is alternate nostril breathing5. While it is perfectly safe for most people, make sure you consult a healthcare practitioner before trying this if you suffer from any respiratory conditions. If you’d like to give it a try, here’s how:
- Sit with your legs crossed
- Exhale fully and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Rest your left hand on your left knee while you do this.
- Inhale through your left nostril, allowing your lungs to expand fully. Then close your left nostril with your left thumb as you release the right nostril and exhale deeply.
- Keep alternating for five minutes.
Also known as square breathing, this is a highly conscious breathing technique shown to help calm and regulate the autonomic nervous system6. It’s very simple:
- Get into a comfortable position either sitting or lying down.
- Inhale for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of four.
- Exhale for a count of four.
- Repeat for 5-10 minutes.
Feeling the physical effects of stress and anxiety? We create holistic, customised treatment programmes to help our patients achieve optimal wellness. Book an online consultation with Dr Matt le Roux right here https://mattleroux.com/online-consultations/.
- American Psychological Association. 2018. Stress effects on the body. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/effects-respiratory
- Healthline. 2018. How Anxiety Can Cause Shortness of Breath and What You Can Do. https://www.healthline.com/health/shortness-of-breath-anxiety
- Mayo Clinic. 2017. Decrease Stress by Using Your Breath. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/decrease-stress-by-using-your-breath/art-20267197
- Science Daily. 2010. New breathing therapy reduces panic and anxiety by reversing hyperventilation. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101220200010.htm
- Healthline. 2018. What Are the Benefits and Risks of Alternate Nostril Breathing? https://www.healthline.com/health/alternate-nostril-breathing#how-to
- Michigan Health. 2017. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/wellness-prevention/3-easy-exercises-for-anxiety-relief-you-can-use-anywhere