Taking a Break to Breathe

It’s another stressful day. You struggle to get you and your family out the door on time, the traffic is thick, your boss is micromanaging and you come home to cranky children and a mound of laundry. The demands of life can make you feel like your stress is non-stop. Unfortunately, when you function with consistent levels of stress it will affect your well-being. In the short term, consistent levels of stress can negatively affect how we sleep, our mood, how we care for ourselves and our relationships. Over time, chronic stress contributes to physical and mental illness. High blood pressure, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, panic and depression are just a few examples.

The positive is that there are many valuable options you can incorporate into your routine that can help decrease stress. Examples are walking outdoors, yoga, meditation, and journaling. But what can you do for yourself when none of these are available to you in the moment that you are feeling stress? The answer is to breathe. Just, breathe. Breathing is the foundation of life. Breath that flows unencumbered by stress allows our bodies to function fully and optimally. Breathing is the first line of defense against stress, anxiety and panic. Just what is important is that when you breathe, you breathe naturally and from your diaphragm.

When you are feeling stress the body automatically begins to respond to combat that stress. One of the ways in which it does this is by “redirecting” how you breathe so that you inhale from your chest, causing your breath to be short and shallow. Breathing where you inhale from your chest further induces the stress response and then this contributes to a cycle of stressful thinking, stressful feelings and other stress related responses experienced by the physical body.

You can counteract the stress response and support your body’s relaxation response through diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is when you inhale and exhale naturally, so that your diaphragm inflates and deflates like a balloon, respectively. The diaphragm is located just above the belly and is the main muscle in respiration. If you’ve seen the belly of a baby rise and fall while sleeping, that is diaphragmatic breathing. You can learn to apply this form of breathing when you experience stress, it just takes some practice.

You can practice diaphragmatic breathing by lying down and placing one hand on your chest and the other on your diaphragm, the diaphragm is specifically located between the bottom of your ribs and your belly button. Then just breathe naturally, don’t force or alter how you breathe. While you breathe, which hand rises? You are looking to feel only the hand on your belly rise. If you feel only the hand on your chest rise, try again and focus on inflating the diaphragm. You can also practice this while sitting or standing.

With practice, diaphragmatic breathing will feel more natural to you and eventually you can feel the difference without having to use your hands. Once it does feel more natural, you use it whenever you feel stressed. Breathing from your diaphragm automatically induces your body’s relaxation response, so that you can start to manage stress right in the moment. Diaphragmatic breathing is an important step in managing stress that hopefully encourages you to focus more on your maintaining your health and well-being.