Stress and Belly Breathing

“You must be kidding! Belly breathing can improve our stress response? I simply do not believe it.”

This was a comment during my presentation on the subject of stress.

Not a pleasant situation for any presenter.

This article is an explanation of why belly breathing is a powerful and simple anti- stress technique.

There is a direct relationship between an emotional state and conscious breathing. This connection has been a part of human knowledge for thousands of years. Science shows us that our minds follow our breathing patterns. By breathing in an appropriate way, we can calm ourselves.

There are two kinds of breathing:

1. from the chest

2. from the belly

Only belly breathing is relaxation breathing.

At birth we breathe from the belly. Early in childhood, most of us switched from belly breathing to chest breathing.

When we are relaxed, our breathing is deep, easy, slow, and comes from our belly. When we are angry, tense, stressed out, or fearful, our breathing is sharp, shallow, and quick, and comes from our chest.

By breathing properly, we can balance our stress level.

By breathing from the chest, we prepare our bodies for action. This is the body’s fight/flight response to stress. Our body senses that we need energy. By quick breathing we will get energy quickly.

Many people will accept an explanation of the correlation between breathing and stress when they read about the basic principles of the autonomic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system is a connection between the brain and the body.

As the “chief executive officer” of the body, the brain is constantly informed about changes in the internal state of the body.

The autonomic system regulates many things automatically, including heart beat, blood pressure, breathing, digestion, and glandular functions. The only thing we can control is breathing. This is an explanation of breathing/stress control.

The autonomic nervous system consists of two branches:

1. The sympathetic branch – in charge of stress responses (fight or flight response).

Under stress, the sympathetic system increases the heart rate, respiratory rate, and metabolic rate, just to mention a few.

2. The parasympathetic system is in charge of undoing whatever the sympathetic system did, which is to slow down the heart, respiratory, and metabolic rate.

The parasympathetic system helps us to come back to the physiological level of “I am relaxed.”

What is the correlation between the autonomic system and breathing?

Well, abdominal breathing strengthens the parasympathetic system, which is suppressed by the very active sympathetic system in a stressful situation.

Under stress, we need to stop the action of the sympathetic system and introduce and boost the action of the parasympathetic system. This is how the stress mechanism works.

How can we boost the parasympathetic system?

So far, there are no medications available to boost the parasympathetic system. One of the many possible ways to heighten this system is by belly breathing. This is a quick, safe and efficient way of relaxing.

By breathing, we actually are sending a message to the brain of how we are thinking, feeling, and acting.

Now it is clear: Changing the pattern of breathing, we are changing the messages the body is sending to the brain.

These messages go to the emotion processing centers (the limbic system, amygdala, and hippocampus), hormone regulation centers, and processing centers for perceptions.

With belly breathing the message to the brain is”I am not stressed out.”

Do you now believe that belly breathing influences our stress level?