Stating the obvious or what – it’s the very thing that keeps us moving along our allotted span! Yep, you’ve probably heard it said us humans can last about 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water but a mere 3 minutes without breath. Often referred to as ‘Conscious’ or ‘Controlled’ breathing, this wonderful gift of life we take for granted has so much more to offer us if we could take the time to explore. In this article I’d like to discuss some interesting facts about the breath and attempt to answer the question – does breathing reduce stress? That said, in this article, I’ll share a simple technique commonly used that I’ve found really helpful.
Did You Know
- The average person breathes in the equivalent of 13 pints of air every minute
- Breathing has very little to do with oxygen. Air has 21 percent oxygen and the body only needs 5 percent. The rest comes from carbon dioxide.
- Seventy percent of waste is eliminated through your lungs just by breathing.
- If the lungs were open flat they would cover the size of a tennis court!
- Free Divers can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes.
- The Amygdala is the part of the brain that controls our “fight or flight” response.
- Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that can either be voluntary or involuntary.
Too Much Stress
To our ancestors, thousands of years ago, the fight or flight response was literally a matter of life or death and the surge of adrenalin when the stress hormones kicked in was for good reason. That temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure soon abated once the threat of that looming large predator had gone. Fast forward a few millennia and for many of us that same fight or flight response unfortunately stays with us for not just minutes but hours, days, weeks, even months. The job, the mortgage, the bills, the fast pace of life – all have replaced the leopards and the wolves but sadly, in modern times, for extended periods. Here’s just a tiny sample of what living in a constant state of stress can lead to:
- High Blood Pressure
- Abnormal Heart Rhythms
- Heart attacks
- Frequent colds and infections
- Serious mental and cognitive issues
You get the picture, it’s clearly not the best state to exist in.
So can breathing reduce stress?
Well, don’t take my word for it, here is what Professor Paul Grossman – one of the foremost experts on breathing research – had to say in his paper “Respiration, Stress and Cardiovascular Function” way back in 1983: “Several experiments show that voluntary control of certain respiratory parameters can modify the level of subjective anxiety felt under stressful conditions” I’d say that’s a YES then! It’s true, the act of breathing slower and more deeply from your stomach, signals your nervous system to calm down. Enabling more air flow into the body helps calm the nerves, reducing stress and anxiety. There are essentially two types of breathing – chest breathing and abdominal (or diaphragmatic) breathing. Chest breathing is most commonly used during vigorous exercise or emergency situations. Abdominal breathing is in itself relaxing and is typical of the regenerating processes such as when you are asleep, digesting food or the body is at peace. Most deep breathing exercises are based on the latter.
Take a deep breath. Let out all the stress. You deserve to be OK.
The beauty of breathing techniques is that they’re easy to do, can be done anywhere and cost nothing. It’s a good habit to include them as part of your daily routine as well as those moments when you face challenging situations and need a shot of calm. There are literally hundreds of techniques out there but its about finding those that are right for you. For simplicity I’d like to offer a very well-known and effective stress reliever that can be performed virtually anywhere you’re seated – at home, in the office, even in the car. It’s called “Progressive Muscle Relaxation” and is a great, quick way to relieve stress and tension in the body. It’s the practice of tensing one muscle group at a time followed by relaxing and releasing the tension whilst performing steady in and out breaths. (Always check with your doctor should you have any medical concerns or taking any form of medication.)
Here’s how it’s done:
- Inhale whilst contracting one muscle group (for example your feet and lower leg by curling your toes under and tensing) for as long as is comfortable- 5 maybe 10 seconds but don’t force your breath making the process uncomfortable. Next exhale and suddenly release the tension in that muscle group.
- Just relax for 10 to 20 seconds and then progress to the next muscle group (for example your thighs).
- As you release the tension, notice the changes you feel when the muscle group is relaxed. You may find it helpful whilst releasing the tension to imagine those stressful feelings flowing out of your body. Do this as you relax each muscle group.
- Progress all the way up the body contracting and relaxing muscle groups as in steps 1-3 above.
What do you think, does breathing reduce stress?
So that’s it, just one simple breathing and relaxation technique. Breathing techniques are a wonderful area to explore as a practice on their own or in conjunction with other routines such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga. The more time you’re able to devote to conscious breathing, the more you will benefit, leading to a calmer and healthier you.
“For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth.” – Sanskrit Proverb
I hope you have at least enjoyed my ramblings here and maybe tried this simple technique. If you have (or haven’t) I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below and thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read this post.
Have a fantastic day