Originally published in Eastern Maine Health System's Total Health Newsletter, "Ask the Wellness Expert," June 2016
Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed you hold your breath? No? Well, let me help. Okay, picture these scenarios:
- You are on a stage in front of a thousand people about ready to give a speech you are totally inadequately prepared for...
- You make a joke that you think people will laugh at and you get radio silence...
- You are at a party where you offend the host...
- You think it’s that dream where you forget your pants, except it's actually your real life and you just walked out of your very real front door...
- Dinner with that family member that makes you crazy (we all have one)....
You get the idea.
Did you feel your blood pressure rise? Because it did. Your pupils also dilated, palms got sweaty, liver just released glucose into your bloodstream, and your heart rate shot up. I am also willing to guarantee you also held your breath, which ramps up the stress response even more.
When we hold our breath we don’t actually stop breathing completely, but we do seriously restrict the muscles that are responsible for breathing, and that amplifies the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response.
In contrast, when you exhale in a relaxed state your inhale will occur passively. The deeper you breathe the more toxins you remove from the body and the better massage your respiratory diaphragm can give to your organs. Additionally, your blood gets pumping and your stress hormones plummet. In fact, an efficient deeply relaxed breath is marked by a pause at the end of the exhale. The longer the pause the more relaxed your body is. Watch someone sleeping and you’ll see this in action.
To train your breath here are a few easy techniques:
This is my absolute favorite breath to teach and one that I use with patients all the time.
- Imagine a square.
- Inhale across the top the top of the square
- Hold the breath down the side
- Exhale across the bottom of the square
- Hold the exhale up the other side
- Repeat 9xs
Inhale for a count ranging from 1 to 4, then double that count on your exhale. For instance: Inhale - 1,2,3,4, Exhale 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Repeat 9xs
Sighing may be one of the absolute best ways to relieve stress. Our breath becomes irregular in times of stress and sighing is a natural reflexive response. Essentially, it’s your body’s attempt at hitting a reset button for both your brain and your respiratory system. It loosens up the respiratory diaphragm and the alveoli (tiny air sacs in the lungs) so they don’t stick together and can fill back up with air. It is estimated that the average human sighs twelve times an hour. Who knew?!
Now go ahead, and take a big, deep breath.