Just… BREATHE! ~ A Remedy for Stress You Won’t Believe!

There is a ‘weightiness’ conveyed by the word stress.  A negative pressure that may be inflicted from within by ones own self or from without by others, circumstances, or even environment influences.  Sometimes the pressure  of the stressor is self-inflicted.  Then we might describe this as a person being ‘hard on themselves.’  Excessive worry, self-pity, grudge holding, bitterness, and unforgiveness to name a few are internal stressors that negatively affect the human body. External stressors are sometimes easier to identify, think toxins, lack of proper nutrients, job and family pressures, natural disasters, wars, etc. 

Initially, when stress became a word back in the 14th century it had less to do with a psychological state and “more to do with adversity, hardship, or some form of affliction.”  Nowadays, ‘stress’ is generally recognized as a combination of both physical and psychological pressures resulting in physical manifestations.

Consider, for instance, the old campfire song called “Hi. My name is Joe.”  Lyrics vary from camp to camp but the gist of the song is that Joe works in a button factory and he has a wife, a dog, and a family.  His boss always asks him if he is busy and Joe always says, “No.”  Joe never complains and always takes on more and more work, whether it be a wheel to spin in some versions of the song, or button to push in others.  Now Joe gets increasingly busy using both hands and both feet to push buttons. If that were not bad enough, Joe is asked to push yet another button with his bum, and then his nose, and then… Boom!

The boss asks one more time if Joe is busy and he yells, “YESSSS” and collapses exhausted upon the floor!

It is hysterical to watch children pushing these pretend buttons just like Joe the factory worker and then yelling YES! and falling down on the ground.  Everyone laughs because it is obvious just how ridiculous the song is.  Yet many of us and our clients continue to allow way too many things into our lives all the while attempting to juggle a tremendous workload on the job, at home, at school, with children’s activities, volunteer work, holidays, and on and on the list goes.  Let’s face it.  If someone does not draw effective boundaries, others will continue to ask more and more of them. That’s just human nature. That is, until one finds themselves at a breaking point, like Joe.

The increasing business of life exemplified by Button Factory Joe reveals stress as the physiological concept that was developed in 1930s.  The psychological component of the camp song is revealed when Joe yells “YES!” after being asked just a simple question, “Are you busy?”

All along we know that Joe could have simply said that the workload was becoming too much.  Yet how interesting it is that we can all relate to Joe’s exasperated YES!  Saying no and giving ourselves and others the gift of boundaries that promote health and well-being can be a gigantic hurdle to overcome.

Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist studied the responses of organisms to stressors.  He developed what is commonly known as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).  Charlotte Gerson considered Dr. Selye to be the first to demonstrate the existence of biological stress.1

Dr. Selye’s “last inspiration for general adaptation syndrome (GAS, a theory of stress) came from an endocrinological experiment in which he injected mice with extracts of various organs. He at first believed he had discovered a new hormone, but was proved wrong when every irritating substance he injected produced the same symptoms (swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, gastric and duodenal ulcers). This, paired with his observation that people with different diseases exhibit similar symptoms, led to his description of the effects of “noxious agents” as he at first called it. Although it was actually Walter Cannon who coined the term “stress” in his study of the fight-or-flight response.2

People with different diseases exhibit similar symptoms


~ Observation by Hans Selye, MD

How does the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) occur?  Through stressful events such as financial problems including the loss of a job, health problems, family problems, divorce, death, abuse, trauma, grief, listening to the bad “news” each day, and the list goes on.  Other stressors on the body include toxins from the environment and pharmaceuticals, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, electromagnetic frequencies, etc.

It is important to note that even good things can become stressful.  Getting a much-deserved promotion at work also comes with increased responsibility and pressure of a different sort.  A new mother experiences “good stress” in an entirely different way.  For the student there is an appropriate proverb which states, “much study wearies the body.” We can also find wisdom behind the old idiom, “too much of a good thing” as a reminder to strive keep a healthy balance in life. When we do that short, less frequent periods of stress – good or bad, won’t send us spiraling downward.

While all these things are normal, humans (and animals as well) are not meant to live in a chronic alarm stage, constantly pushing buttons, taking on more and more, and never taking a break.  This is significant because ultimately we are the ones who are responsible to set an intentional boundary for our own well-being.  Thereby, allowing the body and emotions to find their balance and strength once again.


Image by Mojca JJ from Pixabay

Have you ever noticed that some people just seem to drive themselves with “busy”-ness until they become sick?  In modern culture it is uncommon to take time off from work in order to remain mentally and physically healthy. However, once one is sick, then there is an excuse to call off work and other responsibilities. In this way some folks allow themselves permission to finally “take a break,” all the while feeling lousy for a day or so.  At this point when someone makes a request, it can easily be said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t.  I’m sick.”  The words ‘I’m sick’ are like code words in our society and generally accepted without question.  “I’m sick,” untouchable for a time, ‘nuff said. Just as it should be.

Is there an alternative?  Unlike Button Factory Joe, one option would be to manage potential high-stress levels by simply saying “No” to some expectations or even “good things” and activity (stressors.) This can be very helpful in one’s life and family. Obviously we cannot control all stress in life, yet taking advantage of the ones we can choose to take control of becomes even more important while going through unusually stressful periods. Allowing the body the necessary resources and downtime it needs to restore itself is of tantamount importance.When the body perceives a threat it is considered the alarm stage of the GAS. This is when the ‘fight or flight’ system is engaged. When this happens we enter into a state of anxiety whether we are attuned to it or not. In anxiety, breathing speeds up and becomes shallow. More rapid shallow breathing which is a type of hyperventilation, ensues. As a result we no longer breathe deeply and fully as should happen when at rest.

Anxiety ~

Breathing speeds up & becomes shallow

Side effects of anxiety may include physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, elevated or high blood pressure, panic attacks, restlessness, fidgeting, trembling or shaking, rapid heartbeat, and changes in body temperature. Gastrointestinal symptoms can include nausea, upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, and even vomiting. Muscle tension often presents in the neck, shoulders, back, and jaw muscles. Still other symptoms like teeth grinding, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, and insomnia are common.

The next state of the GAS is called the resistance stage. This is where the body either takes the opportunity to repair itself and get back to normal (if it is not faced with continued stressful activity) or is forced to adapt to chronic, unresolved stress.

What if we just live a stressful life?  So what, right? People say, “I’ve gotten used to it.” Meaning they think they have become acclimated to the level of stress in their lives. The truth is, stress always takes a toll on the body and the emotions even if we think we are coping.  There will always be signs.

In fact, the manifestations of unresolved, chronic stress “don’t subside in the absence of a threat; rather, they persist until specific relaxation or mindfulness skills are employed.”4

Chronic unresolved stress invariably leads to the exhaustion stage of the GAS model. Immunity is low as the body dangerously runs out of resources and the individuals risk of acquiring a stress-based illness or disease heightens dramatically.

“The longer you deal with stress, the more harmful it is to your health. You also don’t want to remain in the resistance stage for too long and risk entering the exhaustion stage. Once you’re in the exhaustion stage, prolonged stress raises the risk for chronic high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and depression. You also have a higher risk for infections and cancer due to a weaker immune system.”3 The oxygen content of the blood is also much lower creating an anaerobic, acidic environment where cancer and disease thrives.

Consider Diaphragmatic Breathing

How do we turn this ship around? Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing has been studied and found to be an effective method of triggering the body’s relaxation responses which benefits physical and mental wellness. This concept of deep breathing for enhanced relaxation and health is really nothing new. Controlled breathing exercises have been part of cultural religious experience for thousand of years.

“Breathing practice, also known as ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ or ‘deep breathing’ is defined as an efficient integrative body-mind training for dealing with stress and psychosomatic conditions. Diaphragmatic breathing involves contraction of the diaphragm, expansion of the belly, and deepening of inhalation and exhalation, which consequently decreases the respiration frequency and maximizes the amount of blood gases.”5

Beautiful Baby Bellies Breathe Better!

Newborn babies get it right! Without instruction, they breathe correctly. Ever notice how their little bellies expand as they inhale through their little button noses into their lungs? When they exhale, the belly contracts and pushes the air out more completely making the lungs ready to receive the next breath of air.

Shallow Breathing ~ BAD!

At some point for many people, the natural pattern of breathing changes to a stress-inducing shallow breathing that triggers the sympathetic nervous system to engage the flight or fight response. This is the alarm stage mentioned previously. Habitual shallow breathing leaves the body in a state of unresolved stress.

Habitual shallow breathing leaves the body in a state of unresolved stress

Society glamorizes a flat stomach. The tightening of the stomach muscles, while holding the breath to ‘suck in one’s gut’ does not allow a body to utilize the diaphragm to breathe fully. Extremely tight-fitting clothes like certain types of pants and corsets can restrict the ability of the diaphragm to expand fully and may be found to be counterproductive. Increased and chronic stressors like these can play a part in or exacerbate a wide range of physical and mental health issues by encouraging shallow chest breathing and discouraging deep diaphragmatic breathing.

Shallow breathing can cause stress & stress can cause shallow breathing

“When we breathe with our chests, we use the muscles in our shoulders, necks, and chests to expand our lungs, which can result in neck pain, headaches, and an increased risk of injury. Our shoulders slump forward and our posture changes as well. “6

Shallow breathing lowers immunity due to lowered amounts of lymphocytes which help protect the body from invaders as well as the amounts of proteins available for immune cell signaling. Additionally, shallow breathing can play a role in panic attacks, dry mouth, fatigue, the aggravation of respiratory problems, and even as a precursor for cardiovascular issues such as hypertension among other things.

Diaphragmatic Breathing ~ GOOD!

Diaphragmatic breathing “can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, relax muscles, decrease stress, and increase energy levels.”6 It has even been found beneficial to help people who suffer from chronic pain.

In a review of the study entitled, “The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults” published June 6, 2017, it was stated that “psychological studies have revealed breathing practice to be an effective non-pharmacological intervention for emotion enhancement, including a reduction in anxiety, depression, and stress.”5

There also appears to be a direct connection with a proper breathing technique and cortisol, a hormone that increases in response to stress. Cortisol can “involuntarily control metabolism, immunity, and some mental processing, including memory and emotional appraisal, and can easily be affected by breathing.”5

“Currently, breathing practice is widely applied in clinical treatments for mental conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), motion disorders, phobias, and other stress-related emotional disorders.”5 It was also mentioned that some studies “have indicated that a brief training could enhance sustained attention as well as reduce fatigue and anxiety.”5 Additionally, “some researchers believe that the relaxation generated by peaceful breathing helped to manage inattention symptoms among children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)”5

There is evidence that as little as one round of diaphragmatic breathing can cause significant reductions in blood pressure, increase heart rate variability, oxygenation, enhance pulmonary function, and improve cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength.

Unless there is an organic reason for blood pressure to remain high it comes down when Diaphragmatic Breathing is utilized.  Why?  Because deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (known as the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system) which in turn sends signals to the body to relax. Therefore by practicing correct breathing techniques, you will assist your client in making the connections between the ravaging effects of stress on their body and psyche, and offer a valuable skill by teaching them how to relax.

In other words, deep breathing helps the body to “chillax” AND it is non-toxic, natural, and affordable!

Some people have been ‘wound too tight for too long’ and lack the ability to fully relax. Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a great place to start. It “is also applied as an adjunct treatment for patients with physical disorders including stroke and cancer.”5 Insomnia is positively affected. Clinical sleep-disordered breathing symptoms in all ages of patients were also relieved. Very impressive!

If it doesn’t help with something then, you’re probably not doing it.

Among “normal healthy participants, fatigue, work burnout, and task difficulty usually led to poor performance in sustained attention… Notably, attention improvement was gained after 15 min of diaphragmatic breathing.”5

In just 15 MINUTES!!! Wow! Now you’ve got my attention.

How about trying a little experiment next time you feel a bit ‘snoozy’ while trying to study or while you are at work. Deep breathing for 15 minutes it is. If you have been practicing, then no one will be the wiser.


Time to Refine Your Breathing Technique!

Learning to breathe correctly is a beneficial stress-management technique. If shallow breathing has played a role in keeping your client from achieving homeostasis, Diaphragmatic Breathing may be helpful to improve the imbalance. It is a powerful and effective tool to add to your natural health arsenal.

Go ahead. Turn down the lights, put on some soft, relaxing music, and do the following:

STEP #1 – To practice Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing, lie on your back with your head supported by a pillow. Bend your knees slightly (use another pillow under your knees for support.) Place one hand just below your rib cage and the other hand on your upper chest. Relax your muscles as much as possible throughout this process.

STEP #2 – Inhale slowly through your nose and allow the air to bypass your chest and fill your belly. Once you feel full of air, take one more small breath. While doing this the hand on your chest should remain still and the hand on your stomach should move upward against the lower hand.

STEP #3 – Slowly exhale through your mouth. “Whhhhoooooo” Allow the diaphragm muscle (where your lower hand is located) to push out the air. Once you have exhaled all your air, exhale just a bit more. Again the hand on your chest should remain still. As your diaphragm tightens you will feel the hand on your stomach move in an inward motion.

STEP #4 – Repeat steps 2 through 3.

Try this deep breathing exercise for 5 minutes three or four times each day. Then increase the length of time to 10 minutes, and then to 15 or even 20 minutes. Eventually, you will retrain your body to breath correctly on its own.

In the beginning it may take a bit of effort to use your diaphragm correctly. If this tires you out a bit do not despair. As you continue to practice and increase the number of repetitions and/or length of time, as with any exercise it will get easier.

The study referenced above “hypothesized that an 8 weeks breathing training course would significantly improve cognitive performance, and reduce negative affect (NA) and physiological stress.”5 Negative affect means stress related to negative emotions. So this is a general idea of the amount of time and commitment that it would take for the healthy people in this study to obtain a lasting effect. The more chronic and longer the stress has been, it stands to reason that a longer practice would be in order.

This is definitely a lifestyle change. However, once the technique has been mastered, Diaphragmatic Breathing can be incorporated into everyday life. Driving the car, sitting at your desk at work, reclining on the couch, lying in bed first thing in the morning and again before going to sleep are all opportunities to remember to breathe. After all, breathing correctly is the natural thing for our bodies to do.

There are quite of number of smartphone apps that are focused on helping to create relaxing breathing exercises so find one that you enjoy.  If you are the type of person who is not inclined to breathe along with an app, not to worry.  Humans have been breathing without smartphones for thousands of years!

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References:

  1. János Hugo Bruno “Hans” Selye
  2. A Brief History of the Term ‘Stress’
  3. What is General Adaptation Syndrome? 
  4. The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety 
  5. The Effect pf Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults
  6. How Shallow Breathing Affects Your Whole Body

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