Breathing is natural. It’s part of our autonomic nervous system, so we don’t even have to think about it. But maybe we should consciously focus on our breathing in order to avoid stress and burnout.
Anxiety and stress have interesting effects on the breath. Since breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, changes in breath will occur automatically without our control. For example, do you consciously instruct your body to breathe faster when your “fight or flight” response is triggered? How about if you’re frightened – do you tell yourself to “hold your breath?”
Stress triggers the release of hundreds of different chemicals to surge through your body. These chemicals create changes in the way that your body is operating so that you are better able to respond to the stressor.
A few years ago, I was co-presenting a workshop on using yoga to avoid workplace burnout. One of the exercises that I asked participants to do was to take a deep breath.
Sounds easy, right? But I was amazed at how many people don’t really know how to breathe.
Deep breathing involves using your diaphragm (a muscle located horizontally between your thoracic and abdominal cavities). As a result, your waist expands out sideways while your lower pelvic belly moves down and out. This allows you to support your breath – which is why it is the foundation of good singing.
But in the workshop, many of the participant inhaled loudly, scrunched up their shoulders, puffed out their chests…then held their breath. This is a classic example of shallow breathing.
The Dangers of Shallow Breathing
While deep diaphragmatic breathing can calm you, shallow breathing tends to increase stress and anxiety on a physical level. One study even indicated that simply changing to a shallow breathing pattern can actually trigger feelings of stress and anxiety (Plarre, Raij, et cl., 2011).
Shallow breathing (or “overbreathing”) is triggered by the “fight or flight” response to a perceived danger. Even though you may feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, these short rapid breaths are actually getting too much oxygen into your system.
Let me explain: The act of breathing enables you to inhale oxygen (which fills your lungs immediately) and exhale carbon dioxide (which takes more time for your body to develop). This delicate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide goes out of whack when you’re stressed.
Overbreathing pushes out large levels of carbon dioxide – more carbon dioxide than your body is actually producing. Because your levels are now lower than normal, your blood’s pH level is increased – which constricts your blood vessels and reduces blood flow to your brain. As a result, it’s taking longer to bring oxygen to where it’s needed.
Which leads to feelings of needing more oxygen NOW – even though your oxygen levels are probably normal! This rapid breathing makes you feel worse. The cure is to slow down your breathing in order to get back in balance (literally and figuratively).
The effects of shallow breathing include: chest pains, light-headedness, weakness, tingling in the hands/feet/lips, feeling feint, and a rapid heart beat. If continued for a prolonged period of time, shallow breathing can also contribute to panic attacks.
If left unchecked, shallow breathing can become your accustomed way to breathe – in extreme cases, your body may eventually forget how to breathe in a healthy way.
Re-Learning How to Breathe
Remember those workshop participants who didn’t know how to breathe deeply? I used a few very simple techniques to help them reconnect with their breath and reduce their stress levels:
Tip #1: Focus on feeling your breath fill up your belly. Many of us tend to keep our abdomens tight. Maybe it’s a conscious effort to look like we have flatter abs. But it might also be an unconscious physical response to stress.
Tip #2: Relax your mouth and tongue. Seriously. It’s a simple technique that can automatically relax you. Stress causes many people to tense their jaws, grit their teeth, or even use their tongues to reduce air flow. Open your mouth slightly and relax – you’ll quickly learn where you are holding your tension.
Tip #3: Count while you breathe. One of the most effective techniques that I’ve used to quiet the mind and trigger a sense of calm is to breathe as follows:
- Before you begin, commit to simply following the flow of breath – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
- To begin, inhale for 1 count; then exhale for 2 counts.
- Inhale for 3 counts; then exhale for 4 counts.
- Inhale for 5 counts; then exhale for 6 counts.
- Inhale for 7 counts; then exhale for 8 counts.
- Inhale for 9 counts; then exhale for 10 counts.
The speed of your counting doesn’t seem to matter; I’ve done it relatively quickly or quite slowly. Nor is the number of times that you repeat this process set in stone – it really depends on the sense of calm that you experience; generally, I feel much less stressed after 3 or 4 repetitions.
What’s critical is to let your inhalations fully extend down into your diaphragm so that you are breathing deeply.
Tip #4: Feel with gratitude the life force inherent in your breath. No, the chi (or qi) life force is not some “New Age-y” psychobabble – it’s just a simple fact: breath is life. Consciously taking a moment of simple gratitude for life itself also helps to keep things in perspective and reduce stress.
Breathing can be an instant de-stresser. It can be done anywhere – in fact, you will be breathing everywhere! To de-stress, simply take a few moments to focus on the breath and be grateful for its life-giving force.
For more tips on diaphragmatic breathing, check out this 2-minute YouTube video: https://youtu.be/6UO4PYZ6G98.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.