How To Beat Stress With Your Breath
By Sarah Morante
Stress seems like a given in modern living. It’s in every corner of life. But that doesn’t mean we have to suffer from stress.
Whilst we can take action to balance the demands and pressures on us, they aren’t going to miraculously disappear anytime soon (or ever).
So, we need another strategy to prevent stress from affecting us. Fortunately, we have the power to intervene. And it’s as simple as the way we breathe.
Why stress is bad for us
Stress triggers a reaction in our body known as the “fight or flight response”. As the name suggests, it enabled countless generations of our ancestors to survive the specific stresses they encountered.
The trouble is, our stresses are completely different. We don’t actually need to fight or flee for our life all that often. We’re battling a more of a silent assassin. Our stresses are non-physical things like financial pressure, job insecurity and unaffordable housing. Sure, they’re not imminent threats to our survival. They’re comparatively mild. But, they’re long-term. And this is where the issue arises.
It means our body is forced to sustain a stressed state for a prolonged period of time. This far exceeds the intended purpose of a quick fight or flight. Over time, this chronic stress stretches our poor body to its limit (and frequently beyond it). Our body simply wasn’t built to cope with that kind of strain. This we see in a deterioration in our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
How breathing can help
We can’t avoid stress altogether but we can protect ourselves from its wrath. The very simple act of breathing offers us a powerful opportunity to intervene in our body’s stress response and thereby limit any health impact.
As part of our body’s stress response, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. Then in an unfortunate twist, this shallow breathing exacerbates the stress response. A vicious cycle if there ever was one. But wait, there’s a silver lining here…
Breathing is in the unique position of having automatic and manual modes. While that whole stress response happens automatically, we can also shift breathing into a manual mode and exert our own control. We can take slower, deeper breaths. And when we do, we set off a powerful shift in our body. Not only does this turn off (or at the least slow down) the stress response but it also shifts our body into a relaxed state. We flip from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”, which reduces the strain on our body, and impact on our health and wellbeing.
We can use breathing as a circuit breaker in our innate stress response. We can encounter the stress but not physically suffer its effects.
How to breathe better
- Awareness. It all starts with becoming mindful of your stress-affected breathing. This awareness creates the opportunity to correct your breathing. So next time you’re feeling the pinch, try to tune into your breathing and then take action.
- Count. At the least, make your inhalations and exhalations of equal duration. But if you really want to make a difference, exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Breathe in for 3 seconds and out for 6 seconds, for example.
- Fill up. Don’t just breathe slower, also breathe deeper. Fill your lungs right down to the very bottom and then ensure you exhale every last drop of air.
- Use your nose. That’s what it’s there for yet many of us fail to use it. Breathing through your nose will not only help you to breathe slower, it also protects your lungs and delivers more oxygen to your body.
- Enlist some help. There are plenty of breathing apps that offer reminders to check-in on your breathing along with guided exercises that can help you make it as effective as possible.