Breathing Through Stress

As part of my continuing discussion on stress and stress management, I’d like to discuss the power of the breath. Most of us don’t think about our breathing because we don’t have to. We just do it. Our body is programmed to continue breathing whether or not we are paying any attention to it, which is a good thing. Can you imagine what your day would be like if you had to continually focus on breathing? Suffice it to say, our species probably wouldn’t have made it this far.

Even though we don’t have to focus on our breathing, doing so can actually make a world of difference. That’s because our breathing patterns are intricately connected to our autonomic nervous system or ANS. The ANS is the part of our nervous system that we’re not generally aware of because it’s on automatic pilot. It influences things like our heart rate, digestion, hormone secretion and breathing rate. Yet, one area where our somatic nervous system (the part we control) and autonomic nervous system meet is in the breath. That’s because we can control our breathing rate and pattern when we focus on it.

This is actually very important because it’s one of the ways that we can influence our autonomic nervous system without spending a lifetime studying to be a yogi. Everyone can do it with a little practice. Before we get into some of the techniques, let’s talk about the ANS a little bit.

The ANS can be thought of in terms of two branches, the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. When the sympathetic branch is active it puts us in fight-or-flight mode. This is what we feel when we’re stressed out by an upcoming deadline at school or work or we’re being chased by a bear. It can serve us well in the latter case because it shuts down digestion, increases the heart and breathing rate and gets blood flowing to the periphery of the body to activate and supply oxygen to our leg muscles so we can outrun that bear! But, it doesn’t do us quite as much good in the former instance, when we’re worried about that deadline. Yes, feeling a little stress might make you work a little harder to meet that deadline, but it also might give you digestive troubles or decrease your appetite and, if chronic, decrease your immunity leaving you more susceptible to viral infections and other problems. That’s something we don’t want and really doesn’t benefit us.

The parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, essentially does the opposite. It slows down the heart and breathing rate and moves blood back to the center of the body to promote digestion. It is also associated with a state of calm and relaxation. While both of these branches are important and have their place, creating a healthy balance between the two is important for health and wellness – especially in our modern world that is so fast-paced and ever promoting increased productivity.

Now, back to the breath. There are multiple breathing techniques that are used for accessing or stimulating the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. The real key to any of these techniques is the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a sheet of dome-shaped muscle extending across the bottom of the ribcage that is attached to the lungs. When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens out and expands the thoracic cavity containing the lungs leading to a decrease in pressure and an influx of air into the lungs.

If you’ve ever watched an infant breath, you may have noticed that their belly moves in and out when they breath. As we mature, however, many of us lose this natural and relaxed breathing pattern and, instead, we start to breath with our chest. Try an experiment. Sit in a chair with your back straight and place one hand over your chest and one over your belly. Now close your eyes and pay attention to which hand is moving more. Is it the one over you chest or the one over your belly? Ok, now focus on keeping that hand still and making the opposite hand rise. Pay attention to how you feel. Do you notice a difference?

When we focus our breath in the belly (diaphragm), it tends to promote a state of relaxation and calm. That’s because using primarily the diaphragm to breathe activates the parasympathetic nervous system, whereas using the muscles of the ribcage tends to activate the sympathetic nervous system. Using the diaphragm also tends to lead to deeper breathing and increased oxygenation. It’s natural for the body to initiate chest-centered breathing during times of stress, which is why so many of us have gotten used to breathing that way. We get stuck in a “fight-or-flight” breathing pattern. Luckily, we can become aware of this and change that pattern. Simply changing your breathing pattern can actually affect your state of mind.

Take 5 to 10 minutes everyday to focus on belly-breathing. You can sit in a chair and use your hands to bring awareness like we did previously, or you can use various other techniques designed to bring attention to breathing with your diaphragm. Another example is to lie flat on your back, in bed or on the floor, and place a small weight or object on your abdomen just below the ribcage. Then focus on making the weight rise with every inhalation.

In yoga, there is a pose (asana) known as the Crocodile Pose (Makarasana). Among other things, this pose can be helpful by bringing attention to breathing with your diaphragm. To begin, first lie face-down on the yoga mat. Bring your arms underneath your forehead, crossing them one over the other, tuck your chin and rest your forehead on your forearm. Now, with your ankles hip-width apart or slightly further, let them roll out so that the inner ankles are towards the floor and bend your knees slightly. You should feel your abdomen pressed against the mat. Now, focus on bringing your breath into the abdomen, feeling it press into the floor with each inhalation and relax away from the floor with each exhalation. Continue focusing on the breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly and smoothly at a comfortable, relaxed pace for at least 3 to 5 minutes.

If you practice diaphragmatic breathing on a daily basis, you will naturally begin to feel more calm and relaxed. You will also be able to do it at will and use it as a tool when you begin feeling anxious or stressed. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the simplest, yet most useful tools you can use to manage stress and improve your mood.

For an audio guided practice on diaphragmatic breathing, visit Yoga International.

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