All sorts of situations can cause stress and will affect people in different ways. The physical response to stress and anxiety can be uncomfortable and at times, debilitating. I often find myself driving along the road with my shoulders hunched up around my ears, or sat at the laptop deep in thought with my body stiff as a board and even walking along the road in a hurry, I can find myself not breathing properly!
Our breathing reflects our thoughts. When we are stressed our breathing pattern naturally becomes more shallow and our breaths short. We tend to overuse our upper respiratory muscles (chest breathing) and forget about our diaphragm, which is a huge dome shaped muscle sitting at the bottom of our rib cage, designed to bring air (oxygen) into our lungs. This shallow breathing can become habitual if you are often tense, or in an anxious state and can lead to postural problems and very tight muscles around your neck and the top of your back.
Short and shallow breaths, also known as excessive breathing, is really common and can even lead to altered CO2 and O2 content in our blood – in other words your body isn’t getting sufficient amounts of oxygen to function normally. That sounds extreme but this can lead to headaches, fatigue, poor sleep and more feelings of anxiety, that only enhance the excessive breathing response. Hands up if you suffer from any of these? It’s a viscous cycle.
So what can you do? Firstly check in on your breathing patterns. Can you take a huge deep breath or are your breaths short and mainly from your chest? It can be tough to take a really deep breath if you’ve become accustomed to shallow breaths.
Breathing through your stomach is a great stress buster and can dramatically relieve associated symptoms of stress and anxiety. Focusing on your breath in that moment of stress will calm you down. If a client is really fatigued during a workout and their HR is elevated I always have them focus on their breath and take 3 big ‘belly breaths’ to help get their heart rate down. It’s brings back control and normally takes it down fairly quickly.
Here’s a simple exercise to help engage your diaphragm again..
- Lie on the floor face up with knees slightly bent or legs flat – whatever feels comfortable!
- Place your hands lightly on your stomach.
- Concentrate on inhaling through your nose for 5 counts, filling your belly with air and feeling your stomach rise as your lungs fill with air.
- Exhale through your mouth, to a count of 5, letting the stomach fall naturally as your breath out and the diaphragm relaxes.
- You can progress this by practising this breathing pattern standing up. This may be more challenging and require more concentration.
Pick a time that will allow you to relax, maybe first thing in the morning or before bed and find a quiet and comfortable place in your home. Try this out every day for at least a week and form new breathing habits. By taking control of our breathing and making it more relaxed, our body tunes in and becomes relaxed, which leads to better functioning in general. No matter what we do, we do it better if we are relaxed.
So remember to
- Breath deeply in through your nose, down to your belly and out through your mouth
- Find your breathing rhythm – slow it down, relax and let it flow
- Smile and take control
Feel the benefits that you can gain from proper breathing, and improve your health, greater harmony, less anxiety, less fear, better relationships and just a happier life in general.