We’ve all been told this when we were children and having a meltdown about something, or if you’re unfortunate enough to have experienced a panic or anxiety attack.
It seems annoyingly simple as a solution offered up in so many stressful situations, but as we know, the simplest solutions are often the most effective.
However, I’m not a fan of ‘just because’ as an answer to why we do something. So let’s have a deeper look into exactly why breathing is so important to reduce stress.
The stress response
You’ll have heard of our ‘fight or flight’ response – our stress response or our sympathetic nervous system. This is the state in which our bodies prepare to fight off or run away from a foe. It’s evolutionarily essential for our survival. However, our stress responses tend to run amok faced with the stresses of modern life; traffic jams, deadlines, money problems, pandemics…
When our stress response is triggered regularly and for long periods of time, we start to see some real issues health-wise including increased risk of heart disease, compromised immunity and greater risk of mental health problems.
Short of becoming a recluse, we can’t fully avoid stress in our lives. While we can actively try to reduce sources of stress, I find it more important to learn how to cope with stress when it arises.
This is where breathing comes in.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the sensation of being unable to breathe below your chest. This shallow, rapid breathing is a typical part of the stress response. Aside from external stress triggers, breathing this way is an internal cause of our stress response.
Therefore, training ourselves to consistently breathe deeper and slower is a first essential step. This can take some time as we need to totally rewire how our bodies automatically breathe. Alongside this, we can use deep breathing as an active coping mechanism when we face a stressful situation.
The more we can breathe into our diaphragm, the more we can trigger the vagus nerve which in turn triggers the parasympathetic nervous system or our relaxation response.
Here are my top tips for training yourself to breathe better:
If it’s easy for you, simply take a few minutes every day breathing deeper and longer breaths into a nice relaxed belly. Check in a few times a day to see if you’re still breathing this way.
If you struggle to get the breath in to the chest:
Lie on your back and hug your knees into your chest, you should find the breath travels down past your chest more easily.
Breathe in through your mouth as if you were drinking the air through a straw, this helps the breath move down into the belly.
Take up yoga – this forces you to focus on breathing for much longer stretches of time than you may ever have previously.
Sing! We need diaphragmatic breathing in order to hold a note, so try singing to get used to those deep belly breaths.
Breath work is a fundamental pillar of Well & Truly’s unique approach to workshop facilitation and wellbeing and productivity. To find out more about what we do, click here.