BREATHE - the quickest path to calm
“Just take three deep breaths”.
This is the advice that wise people everywhere give in the face of nerves, overwhelm or any other stressful situation. It works – we all know that. But why?
First, let’s revisit the physiology of stress.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) looks after the functions our bodies carry out ‘behind the scenes’ – digestion, breathing, our immune response and hormone balance, to name a few. It is also responsible for our stress response.
The ANS has two major ‘modes’ concerned with our stress response: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is our ‘fight/flight’ mode, and the PNS is our ‘rest and digest’ mode.
The SNS, or ‘fight/flight’ mode, is our body’s response to perceived danger. In this mode, our heart and respiration rates increase and stress hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) are released. Blood is redirected from our digestive system into our muscles, preparing them to either fight or flee for survival.
The PNS on the other hand, our ‘rest and digest’ mode, is ideally where we’d be most of the time. Once the SNS has given us a burst to enable us to get away from danger, the PNS kicks in again, bringing our heart and respiration rates down and allowing blood to return to the digestive tract.
This system has evolved over human history to keep us alive, and over the millennia has served us well. However, life has changed a lot in recent times. While the SNS is designed to be a short-lived response, the fast pace of modern life often means that we are in some degree of fight/flight much of the time. The reason for this is that the body responds the same way to a real, physical threat as to the perception of pressure and urgency, such as a deadline.
This means that for those of us with ongoing pressures – be they related to work, relationships, finances or health – we can be in a perpetual state of fight/flight. This can have both short and long term ramifications for our health, including the development of chronic inflammation, cardiovascular dysfunction, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune syndromes, depression and anxiety.
So what can we do about it?
The key is to help the body to feel safe, so it can deactivate fight/flight mode and come back into rest and digest mode. This is where we come back to the breath.
Deep belly breathing, also known as ‘diaphragmatic breathing’, is the quickest and easiest way to help the body to feel safe and switch off fight/flight mode.
The movement of our diaphragm – our main breathing muscle – encourages our bodies to relax by sending the message that it is safe. It is the opposite of the short, shallow, upper-chest breathing that fight/flight mode instigates.
Most of us are habitual shallow breathers, and so our diaphragms are not used to working properly. This may mean that we find deep breathing a little difficult, even tiring, at first. It’s just like anything – it gets easier with practice.
So how do we do it?
Place your hand on your belly.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, letting your belly expand and pushing your hand outward as you do.
Hold your breath for a second or two, then slowly breathe out through your mouth, letting your belly deflate completely. Wait a second or two before beginning the next inhale if comfortable to do so.
You can do this with eyes closed if it helps you relax.
You can also count as you inhale and exhale – this helps clear your mind of all other thoughts.
Focus on the sensation of your belly pushing out with the in-breath, and relaxing in again with the out-breath.
Try ten in a row, and work up to twenty.
Aim to practice at least once a day.
As you practice, twenty breaths may not feel like enough; you may like to carry on for several minutes at a time. You may even begin to notice how nourished and refreshed you feel when you breathe this way.
This article is for information purposes only, and is not intended to give personal health advice. For more information see your health care practitioner.
Mariotti, A, 2015, ‘The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication’, Future Science OA, vol 1(3).
Weaver, Dr Libby 2016, Accidentally Overweight, Little Green Frog Publishing, Auckland.