Stress Management and the Power of Breathing


The holiday season is here.

And we’ve all felt it:  the inescapable feeling we have too much work on our plate, leaving us anxiously wondering how in the world we’ll get it all done without going insane.

This time of the year we often get a serious visit from our old friend, Mr. Stress.  Has he already arrived at your home?

When stress comes knocking, what we do during the first six seconds upon its arrival is critical to our engagement levels.

What is Stress?

Uncontrollable demands at work are potential stressors, but not the stress response itself. Stress is the effect we allow these demands to have on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

How It Works

Acute stress affects something called our autonomic nervous system. Our heart rate increases, pupils dilate, blood rushes toward large muscles and away from the fingers and toes. Muscles can tighten and adrenaline and cortisol are released into your blood stream. These reactions are all part of the “fight-or-flight” response.

This response was handy for cave men thousands of years ago. Even today it comes in handy in combat and sports. We need our bodies to prepare us to fight or run. But the fight-or-flight response is not helpful when driving to work, or when we are threatened at an emotional level; yet our bodies still respond that way to stress. There’s nobody to fight and nowhere to run. We’re just left with fast breathing, a racing heart, perspiration, and a feeling of anxiety.

Breathing is Key

When we feel stress and anxiety, what happens to our breathing?

Typically, we begin to take shallow, quick breaths which come from the chest instead of from the diaphragm, the dome shaped muscle at the bottom of the lungs. When breath comes from the chest it’s derived from the upper parts of the lungs instead of the lower section. So, less oxygen gets into the bloodstream during shallow breathing. The change in oxygen level causes more warning signals to the brain, leading to more anxiety, triggering more shallow breaths. And, we find ourselves entering a vicious cycle.

Deep breathing from the diaphragm, on the other hand, is slower, fuller and promotes more oxygen into the bloodstream. It can interrupt the stress response and reverse the process in a matter of seconds. It creates space to slow down thinking and step back from what is stressing us. This is often referred to as Active Recovery Breathing.

A Stress Management Breathing Exercise

Breathe in: Concentrate on filing your lower portions of your lungs by pushing your diaphragm down, the abdomen out, and inhaling through your nose. The middle portions of the lungs should fill next by raising the rib cage and expanding the chest. Finally, the upper portions of the lungs should be filled by slightly raising your chest and shoulders. Some people find it helpful to close their eyes when they breathe in to remove any visual triggers of the stressor.

Hold the breath momentarily and then…

Breathe out: Exhale slowly through your mouth, consciously and deliberately pulling the abdomen in and lowering your chest and shoulders. Your diaphragm will simultaneously recoil upwards back to its resting position. Your exhale should be about twice as long as your breath in.  If your breath in was three seconds, your breath out should be about six. As you exhale fully, try to relax all the muscles in your body at the same time.

How This Exercise Affects Body Function

You will be amazed at how quickly just one or two breaths like this can change your response to stress. It helps you relax, reduces muscle tension, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and halts the release of adrenalin and cortisol.

Once your breathing is under control, feelings of calmness, focus, and confidence will make it far easier to remain engaged in situations that would normally throw us into the depths of a stress response.

The Stress Management Challenge

Get into the habit of practicing Active Recovery Breathing at least once a day when you are starting to breath shallow. Eventually this will become an automatic response when your stress levels begin to rise.

Your Turn

Do you have any stress management exercises or techniques? Join the conversation in the comments and share what has worked to reduce your stress.

Russell Hunter


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