Air is vital to our survival but when we find ourselves facing extraordinary levels of stress it can be difficult to catch our breath. Stress can feel suffocating for many.
Breathing is the most essential human function, and yet it is something we don’t often think about because it’s a reflex action; the unconscious mind does it automatically. But stress can disrupt this natural process. When we are nervous or hyper-focused, we hold our breath. When we are overstimulated, it can be difficult to catch our breath. When we try to suppress tears or stifle any strong emotion, our breath becomes weak and irregular.
THE SCIENCE OF BREATH
Breathing, particularly deep breathing, which is often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing, or abdominal breathing is the key to the nervous system.
The Nervous system has two major branches.
- Sympathetic nervous system, which sets off our body’s internal resources to take action if there is a threat.
- Parasympathetic nervous system, often called the ‘rest and digest’ system because it keeps our body in a resting and restorative state.
When we are stressed, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and our blood pressure, heart rate rise, breathing becomes rapid, muscles tighten. All of this affects our cognition and behaviour. It becomes harder to think clearly, communicate effectively, focus, and engage with others. It also becomes harder to breathe, because the diaphragm is not drawing air into the lungs, as it should, which causes breathing to become shallow. Stress causes shallow breathing and shallow breathing causes stress.
The key to regaining a sense of calm is to engage our parasympathetic nervous system and the easiest way to do this is with our breath.
Deep or diaphragmatic breathing means that when you inhale, your belly expands or goes outward. When you exhale, your belly caves in. The more your belly expands and the more it caves in, the deeper you’re breathing — which is what you want.
When you next feel stressed, try this:
Conscious breathing is helpful because it is quick and can be done anywhere. The key is to slow your breath from the typical 10–14 breaths per minute to five to seven breaths per minute. An easy way to do this is by inhaling for a count of five, holding the breath briefly, and exhaling for a count of 10. While it’s nice to lay down to enhance your sense of relaxation, this practice can be done in any position. This simple exercise will help you feel grounded, calmer and can ease you into a calm and restful night’s sleep