Sweaty palms, pounding heart, shallow breathing these can be signs of stress and anxiety. They are a normal response to a threat in order to keep you safe, preparing you to fight or run away.
In today’s fast-paced world, there are constant pressures – work deadlines, having to be somewhere on time and ensuring your family is cared for. As a result, your body may almost always be in fight-or-flight mode, ready to tackle the next challenge.
An elevated heart rate and inadequate breathing have long-term consequences on your health. When your sympathetic nervous system is on high alert consistently, it can be challenging to sit back and relax. As a result, you may become anxious, and this can have a knock on effect on your physical health.
How do you calm this stress response to enjoy a relaxed state more regularly?
The answer is mindful breathing for anxiety and stress.
The physiological effects of stress and anxiety
The body’s stress response was helpful in ancient times when life-threatening situations such as being chased by a saber-tooth tiger occurred and a quick response was required. In today’s world, your stressors are not quite so menacing, yet the body’s reaction is still the same.
When your brain perceives danger, it triggers a series release of hormones, including norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol. They are responsible for increasing your heart rate, making you breathe faster and raising your blood pressure so you can deal effectively with the peril you are facing. When the episode is over, they return to normal levels. However, when you are bombarded daily with a demanding boss, bumper-to-bumper traffic or your child’s difficulties in the classroom, the levels of these hormones remain elevated and your body gets stuck in fight-or-flight response.1 When that happens, a variety of body systems can be affected.
- Your immune system becomes less effective at fighting off bacteria and viruses
- Falling asleep and staying asleep can be difficult
- Combined with a lack of sleep, chronic stress can affect your brain resulting in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety
- Cognitive function suffers and it becomes more challenging to recall information
- Learning, making good decisions, paying attention and exercising good judgment are also common effects of stress on the brain
- Your risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases increases
- Changes to the gut microbiome due to stress can mean you are more likely to suffer from digestive disturbances
Learning how to effectively manage your stress and using techniques to help switch off your stress response is essential for good physical and mental health.
How stress and anxiety affect breathing
Stress and anxiety can trigger panic attacks, a state in which your breathing becomes more rapid and more shallow making you feel as though you can’t catch your breath. This is an extreme form of what happens when you are feeling stressed or anxious. You may not always have a panic attack when faced with a stressful situation, but your breathing is always affected when your fight-or-flight response is triggered.
If you are running away from a dangerous animal or fighting for your life, these changes in your respiration are beneficial. Though during periods of prolonged stress in modern daily life, fast, shallow breathing can negatively affect your body.
It becomes impossible for the oxygen in the air you inhale to be absorbed into the bloodstream, and you exhale too much carbon dioxide when you don’t use your diaphragm to draw the air into the deeper pockets of your lungs. This combination leaves you feeling breathless and stressed. It is a vicious circle: Your stress response makes you breathe shallow, and shallow breathing makes you feel stressed.3
The consequences of prolonged shallow breathing include poor immunity, brain fog, fatigue and insomnia.
How to breathe well
Breathing is something you do every single minute of every day, without even thinking about it. Your brain and respiratory system take care of it for you. If you develop poor breathing habits, it can have detrimental effects on your health.
In order to breathe correctly, it is important to understand the purpose of breathing is to bring oxygen into the body and remove excess carbon dioxide. The precise exchange of these gases keeps your body chemistry finely balanced, and your muscles fueled with oxygen so they can contract and relax to perform necessary functions, such as keeping your heart beating.
Here’s a quick lesson on how to breathe properly:4
- Use your nose to breathe. Inhale through your nose so the air passes through all of the built-in filters to purify it, warm it up, and moisturise it before it enters your lungs. When the air entering your lungs is free from dust and pathogens and at the right temperature and humidity, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide is more effective.
- Breathe with your belly. This means using your diaphragm to draw air deep into your lungs to maximise the surface area for oxygen absorption.
Meditation: mindful breathing for anxiety and stress relief
Once you have learned the most effective way of breathing, you can begin to manipulate your breaths to help you manage both stress and anxiety. One of the most well-known ways of doing this is through meditation.
There are many different forms of meditation, but one of the most recognised practices focuses on your breath. Paying attention to each inhale and exhale, the practice brings about a sense of calm and relaxation.
A research study examined “The Impact of Different Foci of Attention During Mindfulness Meditation on the Experience of Negative and Positive Emotions”. Sixty-five participants new to meditation were asked to watch film clips that evoked positive and negative emotions.5
The participants were randomly divided into three groups in the first part of the study. The first group was told to focus on their breath while watching the film clips. The second group had to focus on their emotions. And the third group paid attention to nothing in particular.
The second step was to show all three groups similar film clips without taking a mindfulness attitude. The results showed breathing meditation is especially effective for managing negative emotions.
Focusing on breath can ease anxiety and stress
It is not possible to escape all the pressures of daily life. We live in a demanding world, which may feel like we have very little time left to even breathe!
But breathing is the most effective way to manage fight-or-flight response to manage stress, and prevent anxiety from their negative effects on physical and mental health. The fast, shallow breathing associated with heightened stress levels can make us feel exhausted and the inability to focus due to lack of oxygen to fuel muscle and the brain and unbalanced body chemistry.
Taking time to focus on the breath through daily meditation can help us stay in a stable rest-and-digest state. When breathing properly through the nose, using the diaphragm to draw air into the deeper parts of the lungs, it allow for more resilience to deal with daily pressures.
To learn more about the importance of breathing well and how it benefits your health, we have a comprehensive foundational course in the Unstress Membership. Improve your overall well-being by learning how to breathe well.
- Crielaard L, Nicolaou M, Sawyer A, Quax R, Stronks K. Understanding the impact of exposure to adverse socioeconomic conditions on chronic stress from a complexity science perspective. BMC Medicine [Internet]. 2021 Oct 12 [cited 2022 Aug 28];(1). Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/s12916-021-02106-1
- Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: a review. EXCLI Journal; 16:Doc1057; ISSN 1611-2156 [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2022 Aug 28]; Available from: https://www.excli.de/vol16/Sahebkar_Panahi_21072017_proof.pdf
- Deep VS Shallow Breathing – Causes, Dangers, Benefits, Exercises – Buteyko Clinic [Internet]. Buteyko Clinic. https://www.facebook.com/ButeykoClinic/; 2020 [cited 2022 Aug 28]. Available from: https://buteykoclinic.com/deep-vs-shallow-breathing-causes-dangers-benefits-exercises/
- Pandirajan K. Mechanics of Breathing [Internet]. Teach Me Physiology. 2022 [cited 2022 Aug 28]. Available from: https://teachmephysiology.com/respiratory-system/ventilation/mechanics-of-breathing/
- Beblo T, Pelster S, Schilling C, Kleinke K, Iffland B, Driessen M, et al. Breath Versus Emotions: The Impact of Different Foci of Attention During Mindfulness Meditation on the Experience of Negative and Positive Emotions. Behavior Therapy [Internet]. 2018 Sep [cited 2022 Aug 28];(5):702–14. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2017.12.006