Feeling Stressed? Step 2: Manage Your Breath

During Mental Health Awareness Month, Kevin Chapman from the Physical Intelligence Institute, who was guest on episode 108 of the Access to Inspiration podcast, shares five steps to reduce stress.

We breathe in and out 25,000 times a day in an orchestrated miracle of diaphragm, ribs, lungs and abdominal muscles without giving it a thought. Our breathing patterns mirror our emotional, mental and physical state, and they change depending on our feelings, thoughts and the type of activity we are engaged in. Stability and consistency under pressure rely on robust nervous and endocrine systems supported by good breathing.

The Ancient Greeks thought that breath contained the spirit or soul and was a spiritual life force. The Latin root of the word ‘inspire’ is spirant – breath. Business leaders inspire employees to believe in the success of a business. Parents inspire children to do their best. The breath, therefore, is not only a physiological necessity, it is a social currency.

man in baseball cap breathing in

Inspire yourself

Take a large lungful of air through the nostrils, then breathe it out through the mouth. Literally ‘inspire’ yourself!  If we are breathing effectively, air enters the lower two-thirds of the lungs and we take in enough to fuel the body and the brain, breathing diaphragmatically. When we breathe poorly (clavicular breathing), the collarbones (clavicles) move up and down, breathing is shallow and only the top third of the lungs fill. When this happens, our thoughts, feelings and actions become more erratic; we can’t think as clearly under pressure or balance our emotions as easily. We are far less stable.

The Greeks also believed that thoughts themselves originated in the lungs. They had made an important link. A thought we intend to share triggers our body to breathe in, and the out-breath carries our thoughts into the world; so, thought and breath are profoundly connected. Movement of the diaphragm ensures we have enough breath to speak our thoughts with energy so that our voices are heard. All verbal communication relies on this.

In addition to keeping us alive by supplying oxygen, the action of breathing makes us healthier. Every time we breathe, the stomach, intestines, liver, spleen and kidneys are displaced by the movement of the diaphragm and the expansion of the lungs, leaving us less prone to toxins building up around our organs, which could cause disease and poor digestion. Also, the solar plexus – a spaghetti junction of nerves situated near the spine behind the stomach (an emotional centre) – becomes stimulated by the movement of the diaphragm, enabling us to feel our emotions more strongly.

Overcome Procrastination

If our breathing technique is poor, the diaphragm becomes locked too tightly around the solar plexus, leading us to hold back feelings, procrastinate and perhaps even delay making important decisions. Take three deep breaths, drawing air in through the nose and out through your mouth, sending your in-breath down into your lower abdomen so that it expands, and blowing it out through your lips into the space in front of your mouth. And BEGIN!

Coherence to reduce stress

Just as going to the gym improves muscle tone, breathing in a steady, paced manner improves vagal tone. This term refers to the functioning of the vagus nerve, also known as the wandering nerve because it ‘wanders’ from the brain to the heart, lungs and stomach. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (our recovery and renewal system). It releases acetylcholine, the calming chemical that counteracts the effects of adrenalin and brings the heart rate back to normal after intense effort, enabling balance, renewal, a cool head under pressure and coherent, rather than chaotic patterns of thought and behaviour. With paced breathing, it is possible for all of us to achieve coherence, the state where physical, mental and emotional systems are aligned and we function effortlessly at our very best. Clarity and quality of thought improve if we breathe well, and we achieve superb emotional self-regulation, too, enabling us to improve our vitality and perform at the top of our game regardless of our role.

Our heart beats in a rhythmic choreography coordinated with our breathing. Our heart rate speeds up while we are breathing in to pump oxygen around the body and it slows down while we are breathing out. Via the vagus nerve, the heart and the brain are in constant communication with each other about levels of threat.

Under pressure, an individual’s heart rate will speed up and slow down, ideally, in a smooth manner, putting less strain on the heart muscle and sending more coherent signals to the brain. This enables them to take a build-up of pressure in their stride. A less confident, anxious individual’s heart will speed up and slow down erratically, sending more chaotic signals to the brain, leading them to respond negatively when pressure builds. The rate of change in the heartbeat as pressure builds is the critical factor for stability and high cognitive function. This is called our heart rate variability (HRV). To improve our HRV and become more mentally and emotionally stable and confident, we need to use paced breathing, which regulates our breathing pattern. This improves the production of the steroid chemical DHEA, produced in the adrenal glands, so that when we are under pressure we are more likely to be able to handle the situation with clarity, balance and control.

Become aware of your breathing as you read this. Is it fast or slow, shallow or deep? Many of us hold our breath while we are thinking, snatch breaths while writing emails, and breathe too shallowly in business meetings or while cooking supper or watching TV. Life interferes with breathing in ways that were not intended, to the detriment of our cognitive function, emotionally stability and our productivity. With that in mind, let’s learn how to power up our brains and stabilise our emotions with paced breathing.

an elderly couple meditating in the park

Exercise: Paced breathing

In paced breathing, we aim to breathe diaphragmatically, smoothly and regularly, in and out through the nose (or if blocked, the mouth).  Drop your shoulders, relax your abdominal muscles and remember the spaciousness of posture technique. Breathe . . .

Diaphragmatically

  • While seated, ground yourself and breathe all the way out.
  • Now relax your abdominal muscles – don’t hold your stomach in – breathe in, observing how your lower abdomen expands in the front (your belly gets rounder) and your lower ribs expand to the sides (you get wider).
  • Then breathe out and observe how the lower abdomen and ribs move inwards.
  • Try not to lift the shoulders or collarbones or puff out the chest when you breathe in, and there is no need to force, push, pull or hold the breath.

Smoothly, with even flow

  • Find a smooth, consistent flow of breath in and out, as if you were pulling a thread through with a needle.
  • Don’t rush or snatch at the beginning or end of the breath; just let the breath turn, like the tide on a beach.
  • At this stage, some breaths may be longer than others and, occasionally, extra- big breaths will come.
  • For now, keep the flow even and let each breath find its own length.
  • Don’t worry if your heart starts to jump about a bit as you do this part of the technique; your breathing and heartbeat will want to synchronise and sometimes the heart rhythm resets itself

Regularly

  • In a relaxed, focused manner, start to be aware of pacing.
  • Measure the length of each breath as you breathe in by counting quietly in the back of your mind.
  • Start exploring the counts your body feels comfortable with today. The numbers do not need to be even (e.g. four in, four out); they could be different (e.g. three in, five out). The numbers and pace of counting are up to you.
  • Some people like to create a visualisation to go with the count (e.g. climbing upstairs on the breath in, and downstairs on the breath out; walking to and from the water’s edge at the beach; playing up and down the piano keyboard; running to the goal and scoring, then taking your applause) or you may prefer to simply count and quieten your mind. The in- breath is like an injection of fuel for your body; the out- breath is your exhaust.
  • Repeat the pattern in and out for the duration of your practice.

You will find that the more you practise, the easier it becomes to slip into a paced rhythm.