Dealing with severe stress is very hard on so many levels. One thing you can do to help yourself to calm down and regain control in those situations, is taking a few moments for yourself. Focus on breathing! It’s so important. I can’t stress it enough.
In this article you’ll find out what ‘stress’ really is, what is happening to us in the situations of high stress, or even severe ones, why is focusing on breathing techniques so important and what deep breathing exercises can reduce stress
What Is Stress
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts. Even positive life changes such as a promotion, marriage, a mortgage, or the birth of a child produce stress.
Stress can be positive, keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between stressors. As a result, the person becomes overworked, and stress-related tension builds. The body’s autonomic nervous system has a built-in stress response that causes physiological changes to allow the body to combat stressful situations. This stress response, also known as the “fight or flight response”, is activated in case of an emergency. However, this response can become chronically activated during prolonged periods of stress. Prolonged activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body – both physical and emotional.
How Stress Affects Health
The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress – a negative stress reaction. Distress can disturb the body’s internal balance or equilibrium, leading to physical symptoms such as headaches, an upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunctions and problems sleeping.
Emotional problems can also result from distress. These problems include depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.
Stress also becomes harmful when people engage in the compulsive use of substances or behaviours to try to relieve their stress. These substances or behaviours include food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, and the Internet. Rather than relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances and compulsive behaviours tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems.
Two Types Of Breathing Patterns
Most people aren’t really conscious of the way they’re breathing, but generally, there are two types of breathing patterns:
- Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing
- Thoracic (chest) breathing
When people are anxious they tend to take rapid, shallow breaths that come directly from the chest. This type of breathing is called thoracic or chest breathing. When you’re feeling anxious, you may not even be aware you’re breathing this way.
Chest breathing causes an upset in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle tension, and other physical sensations. Your blood is not being properly oxygenated and this may signal a stress response that contributes to anxiety and panic attacks.
During abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, you take even, deep breaths.
This is the way newborn babies naturally breathe. You’re also probably using this pattern of breathing when you’re in a relaxed stage of sleep.
The easiest way to determine your breathing pattern is to put one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and the other in the middle of your chest. As you breathe, notice which hand raises the most.
If you’re breathing properly, your abdomen should expand and contract with each breath (and the hand on it should raise the most). It’s especially important to be aware of these differences during stressful and anxious times when you’re more likely to breathe from your chest.
Deep Breathing Exercises
1. Abdominal (diaphragmatic) Breathing
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for 4 seconds. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale.
- Repeat this breathing exercise. Do it for several minutes until you start to feel better.
You can perform this exercise as often as needed. It can be done standing up, sitting down, or lying down. Put one hand on your upper abdomen near the waist and the other in the middle of your chest, focus and count 4-7-8. Remember it well.
2. Nasal breathing
- Place your left hand on your left knee.
- Lift your right hand up toward your nose.
- Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
- Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
- Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
- Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
- This is one cycle.
- Continue for up to 5 minutes.
- Always complete the practice by finishing with exhale on the left side.
3. “Squared” breathing
If possible, it is usually a good idea to sit in a chair with your back supported and both of your feet on the floor. Really feel the support of the chair and floor under you. Alternatively, you can sit in a seated meditation position or even lie down.
- Begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out.
- Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.
- Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.
- Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
- At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.
Benefits Of Deep Breathing Exercises
- Lower stress and improve cardiovascular function – in situations of severe stress, these exercises (especially the first one – abdominal breathing – 4/7/8) cause your nervous system to switch from a “fight or flight” to a more relaxed state.
- Lower heart rate
- Normalize your breathing bringing more oxygen to your brain and every part of your body
- Calm you down helping you think more clearly