breathing stress relief cortisol

There is a big correlation between breathing and stress, breathing is a signal and information to the brain about how the body is feeling.  The more stressed you’re feeling, the faster you breathe, your brain will notice this signal as a threat and that things are not going well.  Think about an occasion when you have been put in a situation that you’re uncomfortable with – maybe you’ve had a disagreement with your partner, perhaps you had a near miss in the car or a pet has had an accident.  Your heart rate probably increased and your breathing pattern changed.  This fast, shallow breathing takes your body into the flight or fight mode and back to the cave man times, when we would have been under threat of predators.

If you are experiencing stress like this on a daily basis, the body adapts its breathing pattern and this fast, shallow breathing becomes the norm.  We become lazy breathers, just breathing in through the upper chest and not using the diaphragm, this muscle then weakens through lack of activation.  This creates tension and tightness in the shoulders, neck and obliques (the muscles in the side of the abdominals).  People who talk fast, who are constantly busy or stressed usually find tightness in the ribs, in turn creating aching feelings in the back and shoulders.  By practising breathing deeply, the intercostals (muscles between the ribs), the erector spine (muscles that support the spine) and the diaphragm (a muscle at the base of the chest) are all recruited and more active.

By breathing slowly, you give your brain the signal of calm and you will naturally begin to feel less stressed.  Slow breathing can also reduce our perception of pain and can be used as a tool to rationalize our thoughts.  An example of this is morning sickness.  Sometimes I felt nauseous in the morning, if I went and stood by the back door and took a few deep breaths of fresh air into my lungs, the nausea passed.  Research has also suggested that by practising breathing techniques we can reduce stress related conditions such as headaches, neck/shoulder and back pain, high blood pressure, reflux and anxiety.  When you breath fast all the time, your cortisol levels (the stress hormone) remain high. Your body then clings onto fat leading to weight gain, you are more prone to headaches, heart disease, digestive and sleeping problems.

Breathing correctly with a relaxed mouth rather than pursed lips creates a feeling of calm and releases tension in the neck, back and jaw.  Try to create a habit of ‘daily breathing exercises’.  You don’t have to stick to the same time each day or the same technique, find what works for you.  Whilst practising, channel your thoughts away from your ‘to do’ list and create a sense of calm in the brain.  Try these breathing techniques and see what works for you:

Diaphragmatic/Lateral Breathing

Diaphragmatic/lateral breathing is a basic technique to master first.  Lie on your back or sit up tall on a chair, place your hands on your lower ribs and close your eyes.  As you inhale, feel the air expanding your rib cage and allow the ribs and tummy to expand up and outwards.  Try not to let the upper chest rise.  As you breath the air outwards, try not to squeeze the abs.  Continue this practise for 3-5 minutes and practise throughout the day,

Box Breathing

Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and breath out for 4 seconds, then hold for another 4.  This technique can be useful at bedtime and helps to lower stress levels and calm the nervous system.

1 Minute, 6 breaths 

Set a timer for 1 minute and consciously try to take 6 breaths in that minute allowing about 10 seconds per breath.  This helps to slow the heart rate and practised in the morning can set you up with good breathing techniques for the day.

3-4-5 Breath

Breath in for 3 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and breath out for 5.  By making your out breath longer than your in breath you move your body from a stressed state to a thrive state.

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