I’m calling on another of my friends and colleagues today to discuss the role of breathing in stress. Linda is a psychologist with 20+ years experience in supporting people who have been living with stress and trauma. I’d encourage you to check out her website below her post as she has some very informative and helpful articles to read!
“A human being is only breath and shadow” – Sophocles
So breathing is one of those things we take completely for granted, and yet breath really is life, without it we are no more.
In today’s topic we are going to have a look at the importance of breathing in helping you to lower your stress levels or down-regulate your stress system. We will also provide an exercise at the end of the post that you can use to learn how to breathe with your diaphragm – a really important strategy in down-regulating the stress system.
In terms of stress you learned early on in the post titled ‘Down-regulating stress’ just how breathing is affected by the stress response. Remember how whenever your brain perceives a threat in your environment your amygdala (the warning system in your brain) becomes alerted and often very quickly sends a cascade of hormones (chemical messengers) through your body. These hormones, primarily cortisol and adrenalin, then tell your body to breathe shallowly and much faster to increase your intake of oxygen.
Unfortunately today many of us automatically breathe quite shallowly. If you watch a toddler wandering about and playing, you will notice that you can actually see their belly moving as they breathe. Toddlers are very relaxed, they have yet to learn to suck their belly in and begin breathing shallowly. As we age we learn to suck our stomach in, due both to tension and the desire to reduce the waistline, which makes it impossible to breathe from your belly.
Breathing shallowly actually increases the likelihood that you will automatically switch on your stress response. Because you don’t get enough oxygenated air into the bottom of your lungs you may feel as though you are struggling to breath and even feel anxious. Over time, just like any muscle, the diaphragm will become weakened if it is not used properly, potentially trapping you in shallow breathing.
The easiest way to check whether or not you are breathing from your chest or using your diaphragm is to place one hand palm down on your upper chest area and the other on your belly. Breathe normally and see if you can notice which hand is actually moving. The hand that is on your chest should be completely still and the hand on your belly rising and falling as you breathe.
Breathing actually starts with the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a huge muscle sitting in your chest just below your lungs. The only time you probably pay any attention to it is when you get the hiccups, which happens because the diaphragm has become irritated and it then has a little involuntary spasm. When the diaphragm contracts it enlarges the space where the lungs sit, enabling air to enter our lungs. When the diaphragm muscle relaxes the air is forced from the lungs.
Breathing in allows us to take in important, life giving oxygen and breathing out enables us to release poisonous carbon dioxide. You may have heard the affirmation people repeat: “breathing in good, breathing out bad”.
Diaphragm breathing helps to stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that has links to the parasympathetic system in the rest of the body. Remember that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest, relaxation and repair.
When you stimulate your parasympathetic system through diaphragm breathing, it is essentially like putting on the brake, helping your body to stop the stress response. Whereas when you breathe from the chest you are stimulating the sympathetic system.
Diaphragm breathing also helps you to focus your mind on your body right now, rather than getting caught up and carried away by all of those unhelpful thoughts racing around in your mind.
So how can you strengthen this very important muscle and at the same time switch on the relaxation response within your body?
By learning diaphragm breathing, sometimes called abdominal breathing or belly breathing.
Diaphragm breathing is really easy once you get the hang of it, although it may take you a little practice to master.
To begin with you are best to practice lying down, either on your bed or on the floor.
Have your legs slightly bent at the knees so that your upper body is relaxed.
Place your hands, or even an object like a book or a soft toy, on your belly and concentrate on expanding the diaphragm as you breath in. Imagine as you are breathing in that you are inflating a large balloon in your belly.
Notice on the in-breath how the air moves first into the bottom of your belly, then up through the chest area, then fills you up almost to your shoulders.
As you breath out, imagine a deflating balloon, with the air first leaving from your shoulders, then your chest area, then right down into the bottom of your belly, until no air remains. Stay with that empty feeling for a moment and then notice as your belly automatically begins to rise for the next breathe.
After practicing diaphragm breathing lying down you will find it easier to practice standing, sitting and moving about throughout your day.
Breathing from your diaphragm is not something that you can just do in those moments when you feel stressed, yes it is helpful at that time, however you need to practice this type of breathing so that it becomes more natural.
Practicing every day will also ensure that you are turning on the relaxation response, helping to reduce anxiety and reduce stress.
Try making diaphragm breathing a regular part of your sleep routine. After you’ve climbed into bed take a few moments to practice 10 deep, belly breaths.
Linda is an AHPRA registered psychologist and relationship counsellor with offices located on the Gold Coast. She has worked in mental health since 1994. Since that time, following a long and often trying journey, particularly given that she had not completed secondary school, she achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, a Diploma of Counselling, a Graduate Diploma of Adult Education and a Post Graduate Diploma of Psychology. Linda now enjoys specializing in helping couples to learn how to value their best asset, enabling people suffering from dementia to move forward in their lives, and supporting people who have experienced work-place injury in their recovery. She also has a passion for assisting people to heal from stress, anxiety and depression.
Linda values openness, authenticity, and acceptance in her work as a psychologist. She is a big believer in the power of the mind and recognizes that in many instances it is the activity within our minds that contributes to our psychological distress. Linda views the brain as an amazingly powerful organ: she is passionate about understanding how the brain functions and what each of us can do to maximize the brain’s potential.
You can find out more about Linda at www.eastqldcounselling.com.au.