The Relaxing Breath

By Poonam Sharma, Ph.D

 

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.

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 simultaneously.

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 your breath.

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

Poonam Sharma, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and life coach in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Sharma helps people improve their health, find balance in their lives, and achieve their most important personal and professional goals. Poonam Sharma, Ph.D. may be contacted at healthfulchanges.com
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