Breathe, Baby: On Stress and Breathing

Ever wonder why almost every yoga class focuses at some point on breathing? Or why, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, people will tell you to “just breathe”?

That phrase, “just breathe” is both misleading and entirely accurate (That sentence sounds like a line from “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy”, but I stand by it). This is because breathing is the only system in the body that is both automatic (it happens all the time, even when we’re unconscious) and controllable. We can’t, for example, tell our heart rate to speed up, but we can slow or deepen our breathing at will. Telling someone in a stress state to “just breathe” comes from the right place: hoping that by reminding your friend to slow down their breathing, they will calm down. This is good advice: slowing and deepening our breath does indeed signal our nervous system to calm down, but without more instruction, it’s possible a stressed out person might start simply breathing faster and higher in their chest (i.e. hyperventilate), which would signal their nervous system to remain on high alert.

The way we breathe can be an interesting window into our internal state. In general, when we are in a stress state, our breathing is quick, shallow, and high in the chest (sometimes called chest breathing or clavicle breathing). This response occurs when our nervous system is in a sympathetic state, i.e. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. This is super useful for helping you escape or navigate dangerous situations (think of our ancestors escaping from a lion, for example). That stress response is necessary for survival, but our bodies are not intended to remain in that state for very long. Ideally, the sympathetic nervous system will dominate for a few minutes to help you navigate a difficult situation, such as a near car accident, with all your senses firing: your heart rate quickens, your pupils dilate, your breathing quickens, and your other systems (such as the digestive system and the reproductive system) turn down, as they are not helpful in this scenario.

So, great, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) has helped us escape perils for thousands of years and continues to be a necessary player in situations like hearing your children suddenly start crying. The problem is not stress or the stress response or fast, shallow breathing – all of those things are vital to your survival. The problem is when we stay in this stress state for extended periods of time. Our bodies are designed to quickly shift into sympathetic nervous system mode briefly and then return to a more neutral state or, more blissfully, a parasympathetic state.

We know the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge when our breathing is slow and relaxed. When we feel at ease, calm, and in flow. We might experience this when we get a massage or walk on the beach, for example. We need to be in this state in order to fall and stay asleep. PNS is often referred to (at least by yoga teachers and the like) as the Rest and Digest response or the Heal and Feel response, as our bodies need to be relaxed in order to digest food well, heal wounds, etc.

So here’s the thing about breathing and stress: it’s circular.When we’re chronically stressed (from say, long hours at work or the demands of parenting), we will naturally breathe quickly and shallowly up high in the chest. This shallow breathing continues the feedback loop of signalling to your nervous system that you are in danger, so your system stays in high alert and you keep breathing quickly, ready for action (our nervous system doesn’t understand the difference between escaping a predator in the wilderness and a belligerent boss). But it works both ways: when we spend more time in a parasympathetic state, our system gets the message that all is well and right in the world, and our breathing deepens, which signals that we are at ease, and around and around we go.

Okay, so we’ve established that it’s important to focus on regulating our breathing in order to maintain lower stress levels and all the juicy goodness that goes along with it, like better appetite/digestion, improved sleep, and a sense of ease. But how, exactly, do we achieve this breathful bliss?

I’ve spent years studying this question. Many yoga teachers will instruct things like, “take a deep breath and make your belly big like a balloon”. This is…okay, but not great, as this instruction ignores the way the diaphragm functions. The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle attached to your low ribs that expands downward as you inhale and the rib cage expands, and then relaxes back upward as you exhale and the rib cage and lungs contract. The thing that the “belly-like-a-balloon” instruction misses is that the diaphragm attaches all the way around the rib cage, not just the front, and that our lungs are actually the largest at the back of the body, not the front.

Also, most yoga and meditation classes teach breathing while sitting upright (usually cross-legged), which is a position that is not comfortable for the majority of adults, and if you’re uncomfortable, you will likely find it difficult to breathe well.

Instead, try this:

  • Lie down comfortably
  • Relax the muscles of your jaw, tongue, and sides of the neck
  • Breathing through the nose if possible, notice how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your nose
  • Place your fingertips on the sides of your lowest ribs (just above your waist)
  • As you breathe in, try to expand the low ribs out to the sides, front, and back
  • Relax as you exhale
  • Continue for as long as comfortable

This type of breathing engages the diaphragm (i.e. the main breathing muscle) in the way it is designed to work: expanding softly in all directions as you inhale (front, back, sides, and downward), and relaxing on the exhale. This is how you breathed as a baby. How we breathe when we are in a relaxed state.

Re-teaching our chronically stressed, over-stimulated selves to breathe this way again can be profoundly calming and healing to our nervous system. Our diaphragms can become constricted and tight when we are chronically stressed, so this breathing technique may take time to master, but I promise it’s worth the time and effort to try.

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