You know how people often tell you, “Just breathe!” if they see you’re stressed out and panicking? You might think that they just want to buy some time and allow you to compose yourself, but there is actually much more to breathing than meets the eye. This is the most basic activity we do each day and we usually don’t even think about it. That’s why its importance can be easily overlooked.
Now, scientists know that breathing also plays a very important role in reducing stress, if we know what kind of breathing is required in a particular situation. The most important result of breathing is that oxygen exchange occurs in our body, but now we know that it can also influence our emotional states, depending on the pace and depth of breaths. Let’s take a look at how we can reduce stress if we breathe properly.
If we breathe slowly, our baroreflex sensitivity increases, which means that the mechanism that regulates blood pressure via heart rate becomes more sensitive.
If we manage to control our breathing and slow down the pace of breathing, we’ll lower blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn will decrease the risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm. Also, blood vessels will be under smaller pressure, which means our cardiovascular system will also benefit.
It has also been discovered that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember. Significant differences have been noticed between relating to whether we inhale or exhale and whether we breathe through the mouth or nose.
Those having problems breathing from their noses are advised to undergo a routine nose surgery to allow them to reap all the benefits of breathing through the nose, since nasal inhalation triggers greater electrical activity in the amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional epicentre. That also leads to greater activity in the hippocampus, which is crucial for our memory.
Since our brains are constantly on alert for threats around us, it’s no wonder we react instantly and defensively to anything that our brain recognises as a potential physical or physiological threat. If we succeed in controlling our breathing, we actually make our brain stronger when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. That means that we are also less likely to suffer the subsequent damage caused by high stress levels. It comes as no surprise that we crave situations where we can relax and seek to create such an environment.
Our controlled breathing also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating the vagus nerve, which runs from the base of the brain to the abdomen. It is responsible for mediating nervous system responses and decreasing heart rate.
The vagus nerve actually releases acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that catalyses increased focus and calmness. So, the more acetylcholine, the less anxiety. Another benefit is that less stress significantly lowers the chances of depression occurring.
What are the breathing techniques that can help us relax and unwind, thus lowering the stress we are constantly exposed to? Basically, we should strive to shift from upper chest breathing to abdominal breathing. Find a nice, quiet environment where you can be undisturbed for at least 15 minutes.
Make yourself comfortable while sitting and raise your ribcage to expand your chest. Put one hand on your chest and the other on the abdomen. Pay attention to how your upper chest and abdomen are responding to your breathing and focus on your breath. Then make an attempt to breathe in gently through your nose. Your upper chest and stomach should be still, which will allow the diaphragm to be more efficient when it comes to working with your abdomen. If you do this task correctly, you will notice how with each breath any tension in your body is slipping away. Slow breathing in this position and in this way will inevitably lead to physical relaxation, i.e. de-stressing.
Learning to breathe properly in order to relieve stress is very useful, since you can perform this activity on your own, at almost any place. Not only will your mind feel relaxed, but your body will also benefit greatly and it really isn’t too difficult to re-teach yourself how to breathe. So, take a deep breath and go for it.