Breathe your stress away

Our modern past paced life is riddled with stress. We are constantly racing for and against time. Stress adversely affects our health in multiple ways.

Learning to breathe correctly and effectively may help combat stress.

Stress can affect all systems of the body. It has effects on the respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Learning to cope with and overcome stress is fundamental to our well being. Stressful situations may not go away. What we can change is our response to them and look after our health mindfully.

Why do we get stressed?

Stress is a gift of modern life.

As women, we have another level of stress. Starting from keeping the house in order, healthy meals prepared on time, fussy eaters – catering to their needs, piles of laundry, shopping, home work. This is just the physical bit.

Then the worries, who are they friends with?, why are they late coming back?, what if….

If you happen to work, that needs juggling your time effectively between home and work – more stress.

If there are relationship issues, difficult relatives, it all adds up.

Having said that, you see many coping with difficulties seemingly easily. Sometimes it may just be an outward facade. People keep up a brave face for many reasons, sometimes protecting loved ones and at other times to protect themselves from collapsing and breaking down.

What is the effect of stress on the body?

Acute stress or short term stress is beneficial for the body. It’s our protective ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. So running when you sense danger. The heart races, breathing gets faster and all the blood supply is diverted to these organs as well as muscles, and you prepare to run.

The problem occurs when there is chronic stress, or stress that is present most of the time.

The same mechanisms continue and you have a surge of hormones like Cortisol and Adrenaline, continuously.

Blood is preferentially taken to cardiovascular, respiratory and muscular systems at the expense of other parts of the body, mainly the digestive system and immune system.

The result is:

Immune dysfunction is generally thought to mean people getting lots of infections.

A forgotten function of the immune system is surveillance for cancer cells. Cell damage occurs in everybody and cancerous cells keep forming. An efficient immune system removes these cancer cells before they have a chance to multiply are form a larger mass. So chronic stress may increase your chances of getting cancer.

You also have more chances of getting allergies and asthma because of an overactive dysfunctional immune system.

There are chances that you may develop autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, because of an immune system that is dysfunctional and starts attacking your own cells.

  • Cardiovascular problems – Increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Stress may cause inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this may lay the foundation to a plaque forming, narrowing the arteries. Stress can also change your lipid profile and triglycerides may increase.

Contrary to popular belief, its stress related inflammation of arteries that occurs first and is THEN followed by deposition of cholesterol to form the plaque.

Dietary cholesterol has little to do with blood cholesterol. Read here.

  • Respiratory issues – Stress can trigger asthma because of immune dysfunction. You can react abnormally to harmless things like pollen or dust.
We do all we can to avoid pollen or dust, commonly called allergens.

The problem is not the allergen. We are looking in the wrong place for the solution. We need to look at the cause of the problem – stress causing immune dysfunction and an overreaction to a harmless substance.

  • Muscular problems – You will notice your muscles tighten up when you are stressed. You might notice that you are clenching your fist.
You may get tension headaches and migraines. These are because of chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and the arms has also been linked to stress.

  • Reproductive system – Stress can cause hormonal imbalances that may manifest as irregular periods, acne, excessive facial growth, difficulty in conceiving.
Also symptoms of PMS and menopause may worsen if you are stressed.

  • Nervous system – We have something called autonomic nervous system which is not under our control. So the beating of the heart and movements of the gut are all through this nervous system and we have no awareness of it.
This has two parts- sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response, and PNS does the opposite, also sometimes referred to as ‘rest and digest’.

Hold on to this concept as we will be coming back to it shortly.

Clearly for us to be in good health we need to have PNS active most of the time, so that we can relax, calm ourselves, digest our food well and activate our immune system.

How can you manage stress?

I will enumerate a few practical techniques to manage stress, but my focus in this post is on breathing exercises.

A few simple measures:

  1. Identify the cause and actively try to find solutions to correct it. It may be having conversations to resolve conflict, time management, distancing oneself from stressful situations and so on. Easier said than done. But at least take the first step.
  2. Exercise regularly. Fresh air and moving your body does wonders. Exercise releases feel good hormones like endorphins.
  3. Socialize – with the right people who uplift your spirits and spread positivity.
  4. Take time out for yourself to relax. It may be a walk, reading a book, having a chat with a close friend, to each their own. Book a time in your calendar, physical calendar or a mental one as a ‘me’ time.
  5. Set new goals all the time. It gives you something to work towards and keeps your mind active. I always have something new that I’m trying to learn or do.
  6. Give from the heart and what you can. It may be lending an ear or helping someone cross the road. Don’t belittle any action. To you it may seem small but may mean so much to somebody else. There is joy in giving.
  7. Breathe correctly and using the abdominal muscles, not the chest. Breathing techniques, and there are many, all focus on one thing. When you breathe feel your abdomen inflate, not your chest. Breathe comfortably and slowly, and not forcefully. This is especially useful if you are feeling anxious and stressed.
What are the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing?

There is a dome shaped muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. When you feel the air fill your belly, it’s this dome shaped muscle, called the diaphragm that is moving up and down.

There are many structures that pass through the diaphragm, one of them is a major nerve of the PNS called the vagus nerve. As it gets compressed during movements, the PNS overrides the SNS and your heart rate slows down, your breathing rate gets slower and you feel more at rest and calm.

This works well when you are stressed. But making a habit to breathe abdominally helps with chronic stress as well. You can try breathing exercises morning and evening for a few minutes every day till it becomes a habit.

Activation of PNS also means that the digestive system works better.

70% of our immune cells are in the digestive system. Better digestion means better immunity.

Also the movement of the diaphragm encourages flow back from the main vein draining the lower body, the inferior vena cava. This is turn improves circulation.

Better oxygen transfer occurs with effective breathing so that tissues of the body recieve more oxygen and are able to carry out processes that result in the formation of ATP, the energy that we need. So you feel more energetic.

The holding of the breath in all diaphragmatic breathing exercises allows the slow build up of carbon dioxide that in turn allows more oxygen to be transferred across the tiny lung sacs into the blood vessels.

Types of diaphragmatic breathing

There are many different types of diaphragmatic breathing.

  • 4-7-8 breathing – you breath out through the mouth for a count of 8, then breath in through the nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and then repeat.
Do this 4 times in the morning and 4 times in the evening.

This technique also activates the PNS like all other breathing techniques, making you feel calm and helping with your overall health.

You can see the technique here.

  • Box breathing – This is performed by breathing in through the nose to a count of 4, hold the breath to a count of 4 and then breathe out through the mouth to a count of 4.
You can choose any of these that resonates with you. Make sure you make it a part of your daily routine.

Notice the changes you feel after practising these techniques.

Breathe your stress away?

Sounds preposterous?

I am not belittling the impact stress can have in your life, in all our lives.

Mindful breathing greatly benefits your body. I have given you the science behind it so that you implement it in your life.

Breathing exercises conjures up the image of a monk on a hill, at least I thought so for a long time.

No longer so. It’s part of conventional medicine now. Better to give a few minutes of your time to this greatly beneficial practise, than subject your body to medications that cause more harm than good.