by Tracey Kellett

The breath and stress: when we are responding to stress, our breathing pattern changes and becomes shallow and quick, and our shoulders take over from the diaphragm to move air in and out of our lungs. This style of breathing disrupts the balance of gases in the body. 

breathing diagramThe main reason we breathe is to absorb oxygen and to get rid of carbon dioxide from our body through the movement of the lungs. Muscles that control the movement of the lungs are the diaphragm (a sheet of muscle underneath the lungs) and the muscles between the ribs. 

Shallow breathing can prolong feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse. Controlling the breath can help to improve some of these symptoms.

The key to understanding the breath and stress, is to gain knowledge about how the nervous system works and it’s two main physiological response patterns. 

Stress Response: Our body’s physiological response to being stressed. This can be a brief period of time to achieve removing ourselves from immediate danger (acute stress a.k.a. fight or flight), or a long period of time when the acute response is dimmed but not turned off (chronic stress). This is activated via the sympathetic nervous system. 

Relaxation Response: Activated by the parasympathetic nervouse system, this is how the body reacts when calm. 

Once we understand breath and stress, we can learn how to harness the breath to shift our body from a stress response, to a relaxation response, and start to undo some of the damage caused, and even reduce pain. When we feel under pressure and overwhelmed the nervous system kicks in and starts a signalling cascade throughout our entire body, causing disruption, the stress response. The breath is one of the most powerful and accessible tools we have to halt this disruption. Most of the disruption caused is internal and unnoticeable at first like raised blood sugar, blood pressure, and inhibited digestive mechanisms at the cellular level. Things you can notice are: feeling wired, waking up at odd hours during the night, unpredictable bowel patterns, tight muscles, and headaches. These are all consequences of the nervous system responding to stress and overwhelm. 

The stress response is designed to keep us safe from danger. The physiological responses come from our brain deciding that we aren’t safe. You’ve heard of fight or flight, the way our body naturally responds to scenarios when our safety is at risk. Our body is quick to react to immediate danger, so quick that we can move out of the way of an oncoming car before we have even realised what is happening. The internal signalling is so fast once the input has been received either through your eyes and ears or all three. The fight or flight response keeps us alive and out of harm’s way. It’s essential for survival and serves us well. Some stress is quite positive. It causes our bodies to release adrenaline, which helps us to accomplish assignments, projects, sporting events, and can even enhance our performance and problem-solving ability. The problem arises when this bodily response is turned down, but not turned all the way off. This is chronic stress and can seriously impair our health. 

Effects of the stress response to the body: 

  • Dilation of pupils – tunnel vision 
  • Increase in blood sugar 
  • Tensing of muscles 
  • Increase in heart rate 
  • Increase blood pressure 
  • Increase breathing rate 
  • Shallow breathing 
  • Sweating 
  • Slows down digestion 
  • May increase inflammation  

With all of this going on, the immune system is weakened and you may notice yourself picking up anything that is going around and getting sick more often. This is another sign that you need to look after yourself and address your stress. Research has also shown that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes artery clogging, obesity, and causes brain changes that contribute to anxiety, depression and addiction. 

Airflow when breathingWhen you are breathing short and shallow breaths, the sympathetic nervous system is well and truly activated. So even if you are sitting in your office reading emails, your body is getting the message from your brain and hormones that your life is actually in danger.  

How to manage stress through breath

Deliberately copying a relaxed breathing pattern calms the nervous system. When you breathe in this way, you communicate to every cell in your body that you are safe. Changing the rhythm of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities.   

Relaxed breathing can: 

  • lower blood pressure and heart rate 
  • reduce levels of stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) in the blood 
  • reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue 
  • balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood 
  • improved immune system functioning 
  • increased physical energy 
  • increased feelings of calm and wellbeing 

In as many moments in your day as you can, aim to take long, slow breaths, through your nose.  There are different breathing techniques to bring about relaxation. In essence, the general aim is to shift from upper chest (shoulder) breathing to abdominal (diaphragm) breathing.  

The breath and pain 

The breath can be useful in reducing not only stress and overwhelm, but also pain. Physiotherapist, Christina Douglas says that pain and posture can both affect your breathing, and when you’re breathing is out of whack, you can feel more pain. Slow deep breathing techniques are used in the treatment of chronic pain and have an therapeutic effect. It has a major influence on relaxing the muscles which tense up as a result of pain and in turn further aggravate the pain itself.  

Distraction strategy – Deep breathing makes you concentrate hard on the breathing process, thus taking your mind away from pain or other stressors. 

Reverses physical symptoms of anxiety – When anxious or stressed, people often take shallow, rapid breaths or might even hyperventilate. This can further result in dizziness, blurred vision, pins and needles and chest pain. Anxiety is linked to an increased pain experience and slow and deep breathing helps reduce these symptoms to a major extent. 

The breath is crucial in pain and stress management both of which are particularly important for those living with a long-term condition such as arthritis so we have partnered with breathwork practitioner Natasha Godetz for World Arthritis Day this year. Natasha will teach us breathing techniques to calm the nervous system and reduce pain. 

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