The Relaxing Breath
THE STRESS RESPONSE
Stress is what you experience when there are physical or psychological demands being
placed on you. A small dose of stress can be stimulating. However, when you are
exposed to high stress, your body activates an automatic “stress response” called
the “fight or flight response.” In response to significant stress, your body releases
adrenaline and cortisol into your blood stream. Blood pressure, heart rate, and
respiration rise, while blood flows away from your hands and feet to your large
muscles. From an evolutionary standpoint, the fight or flight response prepares
your body to either escape from danger or face the threat. A caveman being pursued
by a dangerous animal couldn't have survived without this response!
In our modern lives, we are exposed to stressful events all day long and our brains
have a difficult time distinguishing which of these events are genuinely threatening.
For example, if you are crossing the street and a car almost hits you, a stress
response would be activated because this is a real threat to your physical safety.
However, if you are running late for an appointment or stuck in traffic, you might
still experience the same stress response, but it would be a “false alarm.”
Some estimates indicate that in a city the size of Boston, a person might engage
the stress response about 60 times a day! Think of times when you are driving. Does
your heart ever jump when someone suddenly pulls out in front of you? What about
at work? Do you ever feel tense because there are so many things to do and not enough
time? How many times this week have you already said, “I’m really stressed out”?
Persistent stress can really wear on your health. Stress can decrease the strength
of your immune system, making you much more vulnerable to infections. Stress also
leads to increased muscle tension, especially in the jaws, neck, shoulders, and
lower back. Headaches, stomach problems, and palpitations can result from long-term
exposure to stress. From a psychological standpoint, chronic stress can lead to
anxiety, depression, irritability, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating.
THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
To calm the stress response, you must elicit the "relaxation response,"
originally described by famous Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson in the early
1970’s in his book The Relaxation Response. This counterpart to the stress response
decreases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, adrenaline levels, and muscle
tension. While the stress response is automatic, the relaxation response must be
elicited purposefully. One easy way to engage the relaxation response is to use
a technique called deep breathing.
Most of us never stop to think about our breathing. About 25,000 times a day, our
lungs automatically inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. We take this process
for granted and seldom notice how sensitive our respiration is to pressures, worry,
and the general level of stress in our lives. Stress causes us to breathe in a shallow,
rapid manner and decreases oxygen flow into the body. Have you ever noticed that
people often hold their breath when they are very tense? Proper breathing plays
an essential role in decreasing high levels of stress and restoring our bodies to
a relaxed state.
Babies provide us with the perfect example of how we should all be breathing. When
a baby is sleeping, you can clearly see its little belly filling up like a balloon,
inflating and deflating in a slow, steady rhythm. Because babies have little stress
in their lives, they tend to be physically relaxed and naturally engage in deep
breathing. When we are sleeping or relaxed, adults also breathe in this manner.
In order to learn how to breathe deeply, it helps to understand how your respiratory
system functions. Did you know that your lungs extend all the way down to the bottom
of your ribs and are basically in a “cage,” encased by your chest at the top and
the diaphragm at the bottom? When you breathe, muscles between your ribs (intercostals)
move your rib cage up and out, while your diaphragm muscle pushes on your stomach
to create plenty of room for your lungs to fill at the bottom. During a normal,
relaxed breath, your stomach gently rises and your lungs fill completely, bringing
in plenty of life-sustaining oxygen.
LEARNING TO BREATHE DEEPLY
Stop right now and pay attention to how you are breathing. Place one hand on your
chest and one hand on your belly. When you take a deep breath in, which hand moves
first? If the hand on your chest rises first, you are upper-chest breathing and
filling only the top of your lungs. If the lower hand rises, you are engaging in
deep diaphragmatic breathing and filling your lungs completely. When you use your
diaphragm, you empty and fill your lungs more effectively and reduce levels of stress
You can learn to breathe more deeply with practice. Remember that your body knows
how to breathe properly and that you simply just have to allow it to do so. Physically
relaxing, loosening your clothes, and letting go, help this process tremendously.
Below are some simple steps you can do to become better at deep diaphragmatic breathing:
1. Lie down flat on your bed or the floor. Take a minute to allow you body to get
comfortable and relaxed.
2. Place one hand on your chest and one just below your belly button. Just observe
how you are currently breathing.
3. Focus on the hand that is on your belly. As you inhale, imagine a big balloon
inside you filling up, expanding your rib cage, and causing that hand to move up.
4. As you exhale, imagine the balloon deflating, causing the hand on your belly
to sink down. The muscles in your body relax on the exhale, so each time you breathe
out, tell yourself “relax” and allow your body to respond.
5. Repeat this cycle with slow, deep breaths until you are feel comfortable breathing
using your diaphragm. The more you can relax your body overall, the easier it will
be to engage in deep breathing.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
1. When you first practice belly breathing, you may feel lightheaded. This is just
your body reacting to the extra oxygen. Slow down or stop deep breathing for a few
minutes and this feeling will pass. With regular practice, your system will adjust.
2. Don’t give up if you cannot shift the movement from your chest to your belly.
It does take practice. At first, you may have to push your stomach in and out in
order to get familiar with your diaphragm muscle. You might try putting an object
(like a cup) on your belly and practice flexing the muscles of your abdomen until
your get familiar with the sensation of your belly moving.
3. Use your mind to help you. Each time you breathe in, imagine that you are breathing
in relaxation. When you breathe out, imagine the stress leaving your body through
Just practice, practice, practice! The wonderful thing about deep breathing is that
once you learn it, you don’t have to take extra time out of your busy schedule to
use it. You can practice deep breathing when you are at a traffic light, being yelled
at by your boss, or getting bored in a meeting.
Habitual slow, deep breathing helps prevent stress build up, increases your energy
level, and reduces both anxiety and insomnia. The good news is that there are no
side effects to eliciting the relaxation response, except improved health and vitality!
For Further Reading