Our enemies are far from the ones Roman Emperors fought in battlefields – in fact today, our most common wellbeing enemy is self-inflicted. Instead of facing widespread old world diseases that are out of our hands, we’re faced with what The World Health Organisation has called, ‘the health epidemic of the 21st century’ – stress.
When the body is under stress, it’s only a matter of time before it escalates into a domino effect, breaking down other parts of your wellbeing. Stress leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, pressure, an unhealthy diet, too much alcohol, and too little rest. Our minds become clouded and exhaustion kicks in – a cycle of doom that sometimes feels endless. (1)
Breathing – and techniques like deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing and slow breathing – is an age-old remedy that helps calm the nervous system and balance the cortisol levels that heighten when our stressors kick off the fight or flight response. And obviously breathing is, well, automatic isn’t it? So why don’t most people turn to breathing exercises to help them through the tough times?
For one, when we’re stressed we’re tired, frustrated, and plain exhausted. The last thing on our mind is breathing and actually enjoying life. But wouldn’t it be refreshing if that were different?
In one entire life, we breathe in and out somewhere in the region of 600 million times, and most of us take it for granted. There’s a lot more to it than breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. Let’s find out why the breath, and breathing correctly, is so important to help reduce stress levels long-term naturally and to your overall health.
Health benefits of breathing correctly
Our breath is the crucial link between our mind and our body. It’s the only system in the body that works both consciously and unconsciously. It affects how all our other internal systems work – our gut health, immune system, heart, nerves, brain, reflexes, concentration etc. It both reflects and influences whatever is going on at any given moment in our minds and bodies. Our breath is also our only constant companion on life’s journey. Worth knowing how to breathe better then, right?
Before you embark on a Google journey on how to practice deep breathing, it’s worth understanding how the body reacts to stress and how breathing is a crucial coping mechanism that to help us deal with life’s challenges.
The Stress Response
Medically known as ‘homeostasis’, our bodies are designed to maintain balance – they work to maintain the right temperature, the right amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the right amount of rest and sleep, the right level of acidity and alkalinity, and much more.
The stressors that threaten this balance are also far from the ones cavemen had. The human body evolved to release adrenaline and a myriad of other hormones to get out of trouble, for example when being attacked by a predator or fleeing from a wild animal. Now though, we’re simply not designed to experience that same response.
Today, even the tiniest of events can trigger this rush of hormones, like missing your bus to work, receiving an email from your boss, a social event looming that you dread attending. What’s more, not only can these mundane crises bring on fight or flight, they can bring on a third response – freeze. Freeze is when the body feels like it’s completely shutting down and your mind seems to fail.
We are chronically over-reacting to stressors and we are paying the price through more serious health issues like heart disease, depression and obesity as well as anxiety-stricken lifestyles, uneasy relationships and ruined careers.
The Relaxation Response and Stress Management
Controlled deep breathing has been shown to produce the body’s ‘relaxation response’. As with the stress response, a number of hormones are released in the body, however these hormones slow down our heart rate, relax muscles, calm our nerves, and improve our immune system. It also creates the ideal conditions for digesting food well. It’s ironic that when we’re stressed, we gobble down food as a coping mechanism, making stress worse and causing indigestion.
Both of these responses work two ways: being stressed or relaxed affects how you breathe, and your breathing dictates how stressed or relaxed you feel. With better awareness of your breath you can more easily notice early signs of stress (shallow or faster breathing) and induce the relaxation response to stop it getting worse.
All too often, we are engulfed by our fears and negative thoughts of our mind and ignore the pleads of our body. What’s clear to see is that the body affects the mind and the mind affects the body. They go hand in hand.
Once we start to listen and pay attention to the three pillars –mind, body, and breath – we can start to deal with stress is a much more productive way and maintain a healthy, happy lifestyle.
The article was adapted from Do Breathe: Calm your mind. Find focus. Get stuff done. by Michael Townsend Williams.
Try BreatheSync free now – Michael’s biofeedback breathing app for iPhone here.