By Poonam Sharma,
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 ï¿½stress responseï¿½ called the ï¿½fight or flight response.ï¿½
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 ï¿½false alarm.ï¿½
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, ï¿½Iï¿½m really
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.
To calm the stress response, you must elicit the "relaxation
response," originally described by famous Harvard cardiologist
Herbert Benson in the early 1970ï¿½s 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 ï¿½cage,ï¿½ 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
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
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 ï¿½relaxï¿½
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. Donï¿½t 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 donï¿½t 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!
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