How to calm your breath when you’re stressed

  • 22 August 2019

Stressed out and sighing, or yawning through your day? It could be time to think more deeply about the way you’re breathing.

For some sound advice on how to calm your breath when you’re feeling stressed or anxious, we spoke to expert breathing physio Scott Peirce. 

Here are Scott’s tips and thoughts on breathing, stress and good health. 

Breath is a prime survival requirement and integral to good health

Breathing is the first and last thing you do in life. In your body’s hierarchy of needs your airway and breathing top the list for your survival. It’s integral to other systems in your body too. It supplies energy to your digestive system, helps your brain function and provides oxygen to the rest of your body through your circulatory system.

Your breathing also needs to be flexible

Your breathing also needs to be flexible 

Your breathing needs to adapt and changes as you perform different activities. For example, when you talk, or exercise, or do something that requires postural stability, your breath needs to change to accommodate these.  

When you feel stressed, your breath moves to your upper chest

When you’re stressed out, a sympathetic nervous system response is triggered, and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Your body gears up to fight danger or to flee from it. This doesn’t work very well in the modern world where work and the things that stress us out aren’t often things that we should run from or physically fight.

Stressed breathing can become a habit

Once you’ve sustained a stress response for a while, a respiratory pattern generator in your brain turns your shallow, rapid breathing into your normal pattern. If you do a lot of yawning, sighing or mouth breathing, take note: these are all symptoms of stressed, upper chest breathing.

Breathing from your upper chest can introduce musculoskeletal changes to your body 

It engages your chest and neck muscles which can cause your diaphragm, like any muscle that isn’t being used, to get weaker. This makes it harder to get back to healthy, resting diaphragmatic breathing. Upper chest breathing also contributes to tight shoulders and neck pain.

There’s also a second layer of physical effects that upper chest breathing can cause 

If your breath is constantly fast and shallow, the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen in your body changes with all sorts of knock-on effects, like reduced brain function, poor sleep and changes to your cerebral spinal fluid.

Often, people miss signs of bad breathing in their own bodies

In a study set up for my thesis, 50% of participants originally recruited to form a normal, healthy breathing group turned out to be breathing from their upper chest.  In another study that was done by other researchers, a group of professionals were asked to concentrate on the sort of task they might undertake in their jobs, at a computer. Overwhelmingly, participants held their breath, or hyperventilated while concentrating.

The good news is that you can be more aware of your breath and take steps to change it!

Three things to check when you’re feeling stressed

  • Are you breathing through your nose? This is optimal
  • Are you breathing from your tummy rather than your chest?
  • Can you tolerate changes in your posture? Try talking or exercising and see whether you can still breath in a relaxed way while doing these

What to do if you’re not breathing properly

Being aware of how you’re breathing is the first step. If you notice that your breathing isn’t from your nose or diaphragm, accept this. There’s no point adding to your stress.

Take five minutes out and concentrate on breathing gently, in and out through your nose. Focus on relaxing each part of your body and feel your breath fill your belly.

If you’re struggling, try structuring some longer sessions in an easier posture. Try ten minutes of relaxed breathing, lying down.

If these aren’t enough then please seek help. A good breathing physio can help you change musculoskeletal habits, get out of your head to be more mindful about breathing, and relax!

About Scott Peirce

Scott Peirce is an expert breathing physiotherapist and director at Breathing Works. He is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of breathing pattern disorders and is currently completing Masters research in breathing pattern disorders with AUT.  Scott also teaches other health professionals in NZ, Australia, and Canada.

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