Breathing Practices: First Aid for Stress

Our emotional and physical condition is closely related to the way we breathe. As we breathe, so we feel. When we breathe calmly and deeply, there is a deep breath and a long exhalation, we feel calm and confident. When we breathe quickly and shallowly, feelings of tension, fear, and anxiety automatically arise.

Our autonomic nervous system has two parts – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two parts keep our bodies in balance.

The sympathetic nervous system triggers the stress response “fight or flight” (it is this reaction that allows us to survive in a situation of threat to our life, for example, when attacked by a tiger).

And the parasympathetic is responsible for calming, relaxing, and restoring our performance. The work of the latter is regulated by the longest nerve in the body – the vagus nerve, which stretches from the brain to the lower spine and further to the internal organs and the heart. When exposed to the vagus nerve, the body triggers a relaxation response that compensates for the effects of stress. If the vagus nerve is inactive, there is no relaxation.

Breathing and stress

As long as we are healthy, our nervous system after a stressful situation recovers and returns to normal due to an increase in the tone of the vagus nerve. But if we face stress on a daily basis, our body is in a state of hyperactivity and begins to deplete, remaining constantly in a state of “fight or flight”. As a result, we become nervous, irritable, depressed, it is difficult for us to adapt to changes, we are quickly unsettled, immunity also decreases and we start to get sick.

Although the work of the autonomic nervous system is involuntary, it is still possible to consciously control this system and activate the relaxation response. And here the breath control takes the main place. By controlling our breathing, we can achieve an increase in the tone of the vagus nerve and its effect on the heart muscle, and therefore on the degree of relaxation of the body.

The way we breathe – be it short, shallow breathing through the chest or deep and calm – with the diaphragm – directly affects the vagus nerve. A deep breath with a delay in breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system and gives an invigorating effect, and a prolonged exhalation (also with a delay) soothes, due to the work of the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, nervous tension is reduced, but excessive relaxation does not occur either. Thanks to such comfortable relaxation, the production of hormones and substances responsible for immunity in our body returns to normal.

Breathing Practices: First Aid for Stress


As we can see, our emotional and physical state is closely related to the way we breathe. As we breathe, so we feel. When we breathe calmly and deeply, there is a deep breath and a long exhalation, we feel calm and confident. When we breathe quickly and shallowly, feelings of tension, fear, and anxiety automatically arise.

I noticed that most people breathe very shallowly, almost imperceptibly and inaudibly. And if the inhalation is still somehow noticeable, then the exhalation seems to be completely absent. I often find myself at home that I still hold my breath at times.

Since during inhalation, the mental state is activated, and during exhalation, the whole organism calms down and relaxes, one can understand why we are constantly in tension and anxiety.

When we are in a stressful situation (for example, before a public speech or when we are criticized, etc.), due to emotional arousal, the process of breathing and blood circulation in the body increases. Because of this, the body’s need for oxygen increases, so it is important to breathe hard. We most often do the opposite – we suppress, hold our breath, from which the tension increases even more.

In children, the breathing process is free and automatic, adapting to various life situations. For example, a child involuntarily exhales deeply after being scolded, thereby relieving tension and restoring emotional balance.

And how often do we suppress such a natural manifestation of the breathing process as screaming! A scream is a deep, forced exhalation, where the sound occurs due to the tension of the vocal cords. When we accidentally step on a dog’s paw, we instantly hear a loud and sharp squeal, which helps the animal to relieve tension. This is a natural physiological reaction that is also characteristic of us – humans. But, since it is generally accepted in society that screaming is indecent, then in a situation of fear or pain, we reflexively inhale deeply but do not exhale in order to avoid screaming, which leads to overstrain of the body.

Remember those moments in films where a person suddenly meets something terribly scary – a monster, a bandit, etc., and screams in horror. Then we may even think irritably that with his scream he can further enrage the attacker and he can be killed. But, the fact is that if a person did not shout, he could go crazy. Therefore, the scream of fear is healing for our psyche.

We also suppress sobbing. Sobbing is also a breathing process, almost a cry. We have all witnessed little children cry. The tense, gain a full chest of air and release air, screams, and tears in one gulp. The child cries when he feels bad. Often he himself does not know why, what he wants or cannot explain it to adults – he just feels bad – and therefore he sobs inconsolably. Having sobbed, the child calms down, relaxes, often even falls asleep. Thus, the internal balance of the body is restored.

We are adults, when we feel deeply unhappy, we most often suppress sobs, believing that adults do not behave like that, and instead begin to rationalize (explain something to ourselves about the situation). As a result, we may have frequent headaches, because the brain is primarily affected by the suppression of the natural breathing process. An aching, aching headache arises from the squeezed internal tension.

Often our respiratory muscles get so used to being in a spasmodic state that they even “don’t want” to breathe. The diaphragm may be tense, which may indicate that we have suppressed the desire to burst into tears or express our disgust (suppressed “gag reflex”). If we have a tight throat, it is most likely a repressed urge to scream. If the shoulder blades are too pulled back and lowered, due to which the chest is bulging, then perhaps we are thereby hiding our fear. Gritted teeth also hinder breathing, and we move our teeth when we suppress aggression.

Therefore, sobbing is part of the process of deep psychotherapy, thanks to which natural breathing movements are released, muscle blocks go away and the full functioning of the respiratory apparatus is established.

How can I help myself?

There are three large muscle groups involved in breathing:

  • muscles located between the ribs – they expand the chest;
  • muscles of the upper shoulder girdle – they pull the chest up;
  • a diaphragm that works from below like a pump, increasing the volume of the chest by compressing the abdominal organs.

Therefore, there are  3 types of breathing :

The most superficial is clavicular. Look at the people around you. Many hunches over, raise their shoulders, and do not straighten their backs. The collarbones are raised and the abdomen is compressed. In this position, the body receives very little oxygen.

The second type is chest breathing. With it, the intercostal muscles work, expanding the chest, – the body gets more oxygen.

The third type is deep breathing, which involves the muscles of the diaphragm. With it, the air is mainly filled in the lower parts of the lungs, where most of the alveoli are located.

Breathing Practices: First Aid for Stress

Mastering natural breathing:

Try to inhale as fully as possible with the intercostal muscles, upper shoulder girdle muscles, and abdominals. And just as deeply exhale + “breathe out” the remaining air in two or three steps. After a 3-5 second pause, inhale as fully as possible again.

Perform this complex 3-7 times if necessary. Focus on the result – you should feel that your breathing has become free and full. You should also feel that all three muscle groups (intercostal muscles, shoulder muscles, and abs) work in concert to help each other breath.

When you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or stressed:

Pay attention to your breathing. How do you breathe? You will most likely notice that breathing is suppressed. Therefore, sit or lie down in a comfortable position with your back and legs straight. Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Relax the abdominal muscles so that the diaphragm is lowered and the inhalation is deeper (the belly “bulges” on it). Concentrate fully on your breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose until your abdomen is fully inflated. Stick to the formula: inhale for 4 counts, then pause – keep the air in ourselves for 2 counts, then exhale for 4 counts, and again pause – do not breathe for 2 counts, and then inhale for 4 counts, etc.

4 counts inhale – 2 counts pause – 4 counts exhale – 2 counts pause.

Do not hurry. Feel how the air enters the nose, passes through the throat and neck into the bronchi. Feel how your ribs spread as you inhale, how your back stretches, how space you occupy increases when your chest expands. Watch your belly as it bulges out as you inhale and retracts as you exhale. As you exhale, feel how elastic, without much effort, your ribs and muscles return to their original state of rest before the next inhalation.

If you feel that breathing allows you to take deeper inhales / exhales, then do the cycle not 4/2 counts, but 6/3, 8/4, and so on .

Do this exercise for at least 5 minutes. It can be practiced not only to relieve tension and calm down but as a regular relaxation practice (20 minutes 1 time per day and these 20 minutes can be broken, for example, into 4 sets of 5 minutes each).

With increased excitability, nervousness, irritability and anxiety:

Inhale slowly for 5 seconds, pause for 5 seconds, and exhale for 5 seconds. If it’s easy for you, you can gradually increase the duration of each phase, but the pause duration should not be increased by more than 10 seconds.

This exercise has a pronounced calming effect, so it can be done before bed, especially if you have difficulty falling asleep.

Next Post