Breathing and stress have a very strong connection. The primary role of breathing is to absorb oxygen and to expel carbon dioxide through the movement of our lungs. But breathing can do much more than that. We have the power to consciously control our breathing. Why is this important? Because controlling your breath can help you cope with stress and stress-related situations.
Breathing and Stress
You have probably noticed how your breathing differs when you feel relaxed from when you are stressed and anxious.
When we are under stress our breathing pattern changes. When we feel anxious we take small, shallow breaths using our shoulders rather than our diaphragm to move air in and out of our lungs.
This breathing pattern, known as hyperventilation, disrupts the balance of the gases in our body and further prolongs the feeling of anxiety. It may trigger a panic attack by making physical symptoms of anxiety worse – you feel dizzy, tired, weak and start sweating. You may feel nauseous, have skin sensations, like prickling, and experience numbness in your arms and legs. You may feel overwhelmed with a fear that you are going to faint, or that something terrible is going to happen.
Learning how to control your breathing can help you improve stress and anxiety symptoms. The result? You feel more relaxed and composed in stress-related situations.
Breathing and Relaxation
When you breathe deeply, you send the signal to your brain to calm down and relax. In return, your brain sends the same message to your body. An increased heart rate or quick, shallow breathing decrease as you breathe deeply and begin to relax. This shows how breathing has a physiological effect by decreasing stress in your body.
When you are relaxed, you breathe through your nose. Your breathing is slow and calm. This breathing pattern affects your whole body. That’s why breathing exercises are a good way to relax, ease tension, and relieve stress. Numerous studies show that controlled relaxed breathing helps calm the nervous system that is in charge of the body’s involuntary functions.
Some of the physical changes caused by deep, relaxed breathing involve reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood, lowered blood pressure, and balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. Deep breathing can increase your overall physical energy, boost your immune system and enhance the feelings of composure and well-being.
The Science behind Deep Breathing
During the 1990s, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles discovered a bundle of approximately 3,000 interlinked neurons inside the brain stems of animals and people that seem to control most aspects of breathing. They called this bundle of neurons the “breathing pacemaker”. This patch of neurons communicates the information on your breathing to another part of the brain responsible for your state of mind.
Researchers found that if these neurons were destroyed in mice, they had a reduced sense of alertness and became far more relaxed.
These studies suggest the possibility that the physical link between breathing and our state of mind is critical in stress and relaxation.
Deep Breathing Exercises
There are many breathing techniques that you can practice to relax and relieve tension. The main aim of deep breathing is to shift from upper chest breathing to abdominal breathing. Belly breathing is a basic breathing exercise that you can easily learn and practice. All you need is a quiet, tranquil environment and 10 to 20 minutes of your day.
Some of the most common deep breathing techniques include abdominal breathing, progressive relaxation, and guided visualization.
If you have trouble with how to effectively breathe for relaxation, one of our trained professionals can help! Call our office today to get started on your own relaxation skills training to decrease stress and increase calm!
About the Author
Dana Carretta-Stein is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and founder of Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling, PLLC, in Scarsdale, NY. She specializes in clinical psychotherapy to treat individuals with anxiety, behavior and trauma difficulties.
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