Perhaps the most significant tool that you have at your disposal to help with stress is – the conscious control of your breathing.
Have you ever paid attention to how you breathe when you are stressed? Typically, the pattern becomes shorter, quicker and focussed higher up through the upper chest and shoulders.
Long term poor breathing patterns caused by chronic stress is one of the leading contributing causes of back pain, shoulder and neck tension, as well as headaches and fatigue. Chronic stress leads to the over-use of the accessory muscles of respiration. These muscles are only supposed to kick in when you are fighting or fleeing for your life because they help you to get extra oxygen into your system. Another excellent example of just how well adapted the human machine is for survival purposes.
Here’s the issue to consider. Chronic stress leads to poor breathing, but poor breathing technique can also trigger chronic stress. It’s a circular system, and that means that if you can train yourself to breathe correctly, you can develop a better ability to handle your stress. Not to mention you will feel a whole lot better too!
How Should You Breathe?
That’s a good question.
There are several schools of thought on what proper breathing should be and in to make sense of it; there are three main questions for you to consider:
- What is ideal breathing?
- What breathing exercises can I do?
- What is the role of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems in proper breathing?
What Should An Ideal Breathe Look Like?
The conventional way of looking at good breathing is to consider that it should be deep, it should be slow, and it would originate from your diaphragm.
That’s what is taught all around the world by health experts, yoga gurus and many others ‘in the know’. It’s a useful place to begin.
Your Amazing Diaphragm
Your diaphragm is a large dome-shaped muscle that sits at the top of your abdomen and is attached all the way around your rib cage as well as your spine. It works to draw air into your lungs like a vacuum pump, because when it contracts, it draws down into the abdomen, reducing the pressure in your chest, which draws air down into your lungs.
The problem is, many people do not have optimally working diaphragms. Years of chronic stress, together with poor posture, can impede the mechanical function of the spine, chest and muscles of respiration, leading to a lazy diaphragm. The effect? It’s harder to breathe well.
There are some useful things you can do to help retrain your diaphragm and kick it back into a decent working order.
The first step is to rediscover what abdominal breathing feels like.
A Simple Exercise To Retrain Your Diaphragm
Lie on your back, and place a book on your abdomen.
As you breathe, try to draw the air down into your abdomen so that it expands like a barrel and raises the book towards the ceiling.
If you can do this, you are activating your diaphragm and re-learning how to breathe ‘correctly’. Don’t worry if you cannot do this straight away; it can take some practice.
The Correct Pattern Of Breathing
Let’s take a little look at some applied neurology followed by some practical exercises so that you can know with certainty how breathing affects your physiology.
Most of the functions of your body which keep you alive are controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS). There are two primary divisions to your ANS:
- The sympathetic nervous system (SNS)- the fight or flight survival system that kicks in under stress
- The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – the rest, digest and renewal system
Interestingly, you can deliberately alter the way that your ANS works by changing how you breathe. The conscious control of your diaphragm can instantaneously change whether or not your SNS or PNS dominates. In other words, you can deliberately drive yourself into a state of stress, or you can consciously induce a state of relaxation, at will.
A simple exercise to rev your body up
We’ve already talked about how chronic stress makes you breathe short and sharp and up through your chest, shoulders and neck. This is useful if you need a quick boost of oxygen, but not ideal for health long term.
Try this breathing exercise to give you a boost deliberately.
Take a series of 5 to 10 breathes where you deliberately:
- Deeply inhale slowly
- Deeply exhale quickly
You might take 3 seconds to inhale and half a second to quickly exhale the same volume of air.
What you notice is that this picks you up, it gives you a boost of energy. But it is doing so by activating your sympathetic nervous system. This little exercise gives you a direct appreciation of how stress affects your breathing and your physiology.
A Simple Exercise To Calm You Down
So what if you wanted to activate your rest and renewal system instead?
Good news is that this is also easy to do. You just reverse the exercise above.
Take a series of 5 to 10 breathes where you deliberately:
- Deeply inhale quickly
- Deeply exhale slowly
You might take 1-2 seconds to inhale and 10-15 seconds to let the air back out slowly.
You probably notice that almost immediately your system is calmed down because this consciously activates your parasympathetic nervous system which is all about rest and renewal.
Good Health Is All About Balance
The human-machine craves something called homeostasis – which essentially means a balanced function. It is the state at which is in harmony and all systems are working well.
To achieve homeostasis, you must have the appropriate levels of all things pertaining to health, not too much and not too little of anything. It’s quite a wise viewpoint to take on life in general, let alone health.
So the best pattern for breathing, the one that will create a calm, focused, productive mental state balanced breathing.
Balanced Breathing Exercise
Optimal breathing pattern is achieved simply by maintaining a 1:1 ratio of breath in and breath out.
This is also known as eutonic breathing.
Try this simple exercise to experience the effect of balanced breathing:
Sit on the edge of a chair, with your spine upright and your eyes closed.
Breathe slowly, deeply and consciously from your diaphragm, mentally following the air as it flows in and out of your nose, as you breathe with equal length breaths in and out. It will look like something like this:
- Breathe in deeply for a count of 4
- Breathe out deeply for a count of 4
- Keep going
You can keep going for 5 minutes, or even as long as 20-40 minutes. It is one of the purest forms of meditation that exists, and it works.
Another very simple exercise which can help restore balance and rhythm to your breathing is something called box breathing.
The name gives you a simple image to guide your breathing, which will simply be an equal ratio of breath in, pause, breathe out, pause, repeat. It will look something like this
- Breathe in for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 4
- Breathe out for a count of 4
- Hold for a count of 4
I like this exercise and do it if I am I feeling particularly stressed and want to steady my mental state in preparation for focussed work. Try it out and see if you like it. 2 minutes of this can be a good reset mid-afternoon.
The Problem With Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
Here’s the deeper issue: Trying to retrain diaphragmatic breathing is a patch-up job for a body structure (skeleton) that is out of balance. It’s a bit like painting over rust or making the best of a bad situation.
If your body’s mechanical function is reasonable, you don’t have to think about how to breathe correctly. You just do it optionally, and it involves much more than only your diaphragm.
Diaphragm breathing is a useful exercise if your body isn’t working well. So, by all means, make it a part of your health routines. The interesting that our patients discover when they start with ABC treatment is that they naturally begin to breathe better than they have in years – without having to think about it!
Breathing is directly related to how well your chest functions, and that is directly related to the alignment of your spine and ribs.
Proper alignment is the position that a bone needs to be in for it to do its job correctly. When your spinal vertebrae and ribs are all in their correct positions, they can do their job correctly, and chest function is dramatically improved.
So, when you get adjusted with ABC (Advanced Biostructral Correction), your body naturally rediscovers how to breathe correctly. Your diaphragm comes back online and expands effortlessly without physical restrictions holding it back.
With proper alignment and mechanical function, you don’t just expand through your diaphragm, your entire chest and abdomen expand like a barrel, in all directions. You breathe simultaneously into your lower, middle and upper chest. You can feel this expansion occurring without restriction effortlessly and automatically.
Interestingly, that’s the ‘normal’ condition. That level of breathing is the side-effect of a healthy structure. It does not need to be training into you; rather, your body needs to have the restrictions removed that are blocking this ideal expression of health.
Sometimes Stress Gets Locked Into Your Structure
To wrap this up, I said at the start that stress and poor breathing are circular in the way that they affect each other.
Doing balanced breathing exercises can be a tremendous help for relaxing your mind and body.
Having your posture corrected with ABC will allow your body to work correctly and your breathing to be effortlessly balanced, which in turn frees you from a deep-seated an ongoing cause of excessive sympathetic stress.
The best approach would be to do both.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Which breathing exercises have helped you most in the past with controlling your stress? Add a comment in the box below.