Our bodies are amazingly adaptable. When it gets dark, our pupils dilate to let in more light. When it’s too hot, our body sweats to lower our core temperature. When we cut our finger, the blood vessels in that area automatically narrow and the blood starts to clot. Our bodies are constantly protecting us with a series of biological changes in response to different environmental triggers. And this bio-feedback is no different when it comes to stress.
Whether the stress is physical (i.e. running from a predator), mental (i.e. a tense project deadline at work), or emotional (i.e. a fight with a loved one) our bodies have a programed response to help us navigate from the “danger.”
When your brain senses a “threat,” a hormonal cascade is triggered. In this “fight or flight” response, adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream. Cortisol boosts blood sugar, readying fuel for the muscles to run. Adrenaline causes the heart to race, increasing the flow of oxygen into the major muscles. Blood flow increases 300-400% in order to prepare the body for the added physical demands of fighting or running to safety. The muscles tense, the blood pressure elevates, energy is diverted away from the digestive system, and inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein increase and circulate through the bloodstream awaiting their possible call to arms.
This entire biochemical process happens within our body every time we experience any type of stress. While an occasional stress trigger isn’t an issue, chronic low levels of stress can wreak havoc on our body. When the body’s stress responses are activated, it isn’t concerned with your longevity. Self-repair, cellular rejuvenation, destroying damaged cells, and fighting free radical damage are of no concern to your body when it thinks you’re in immediate danger. This is why chronic stress is linked to heart attacks, high blood pressure, stroke, a weakened immune system, weight gain or weight loss, migraines, insomnia, IBS and other digestive issues, and even cancer.
The good news is that we have a powerful weapon on our side when stressful situations threaten to disrupt our peace: deep breathing. Deep breathing signals to our brain that we are not in danger. This simple practice switches our body from running on the Sympathetic, or fight or flight, to the Parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest and digest” state. As we take in slower, deeper breaths, our blood becomes more oxygenated, our muscles relax, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure reduces, and we regain mental clarity.
There are several different techniques for deep breathing, namely Alternate Nostril Breathing, Equal Breathing, Pursed Lip (or Resistance) Breathing, and 4-8-7 Breathing. Today we will cover the basics of deep breathing, but I encourage you to explore the other techniques to find what feels right for you.
The Basics of Deep Breathing:
- Find a comfortable position, seated or lying down is ideal, but even if you’re standing in line at the grocery store, it will work too.
- Close your eyes if you’re able and slowly breathe in through the nose for 5-8 seconds. Concentrate on breathing in slowly, feeling your lungs and belly expand with the inhalation.
- Now slowly and evenly breathe out through the mouth (or nose if that feels better for you) for 5-8 seconds. Concentrate on breathing out slowly, feeling your lungs and belly contract with the exhalation.
- Repeat for at least 5 breath cycles.
- Before you open your eyes, take a moment to allow your breath to return to normal, and notice where it naturally rests.
- You can even take a moment for an affirmative thought to help you in your stressful situation such as “This too shall pass,” “I will not stress over things out of my control,” or “I willingly let my anxious thoughts go. I embrace life with a laid-back attitude.”
Next time you’re in a stressful situation, take a moment and focus on the breath. Remember that you are not in control of everything that happens to you, but you are in control of how you react.