Breathing Technique to Combat Stress (By Dr. Nini Callan)
Breathing: a Pillar of Health
It’s right there in the company of nutrition, sleep, and exercise as a foundational pillar of health.
But breathing is easier to take for granted. After all, it just...happens. Those other pillars seem more involved. We have to find and prepare our food. We have to find a safe (and hopefully comfy) place to sleep. We can engage in all sorts of work and exercise (or not).
But breathing is non-negotiable. Your body is going to make sure it happens. And that makes it easy to take for granted.
For the longest time, I ignored my breathing. It’s strange, but even as a college trackster I never learned much about the importance of breathing. Again, I’m guessing because breathing is so easy to take for granted. It just happens even when leaping hurdles at full speed!
But of course not all ways of breathing are equal. I learned this lesson not through yoga or tai-chi or meditation (each potentially wonderful pathways into breathwork). For me, it took finding myself in an anxiety attack. I was a shaking, jittery wreck. My heart was racing, my body quivering, my breathing shallow and quick. Suddenly, it was as if my body wasn’t my own and I had no control over what went on inside it. Or so I thought.
That’s when a friend suggested I try what I later learned many naturopaths call Square Breathing, or Four-Square Breathing. It was simple:
Inhale using my diaphragm (aka belly breathing) through the nose for a slow, relaxed count of four.
Hold that breath for the same four count.
Exhale slowly through the mouth to that same count of four.
Hold for another count of four.
Repeat that cycle at least four times.
I tried it and felt a calm wave of relief wash over me.
When we perceive ourselves as threatened or experience something stressful, our autonomic nervous system—the same physiological autopilot that keeps us breathing and our heart beating—leaps to our aid. A branch of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, triggers a release of epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol. These hormones kick the body into high gear, resulting in a cascade of physiological reactions.
Our heartbeat spikes. Our breathing follows. Basically, our body is getting ready to take drastic physical action. Our senses become more sensitive and sharp. Our pupils dilate, taking the situation in. A surge of glucose is released from storage to fuel the brain and body. Our muscles tense, ready for quick and forceful use. Digestion shuts down. Cognition narrows and focuses on the threat at hand.
This, of course, is the fight or flight response. It is an automatic and powerful reaction.
If we need to fight a bear or run from it, our fight or flight reaction is super helpful. Without this physiological boost, our odds of survival would be far lower. But if we spot a stick by the sidewalk and mistake it for a rattlesnake, our sympathetic nervous system probably won’t do us any favors. It could launch us blindly into traffic with a startled leap and a mindless yelp.
A similar sort of thing happens with stress-responses like anxiety or fear. We’ve perceived something as a threat and our nervous system wants to help out. So it plays its one big card. But most of the time fight or flight won’t be helpful to us because it’s not a bear or a snake that has us worried. It’s a speech in front of colleagues, a quarterly review with our boss, or a first date with someone we really like. It could even be just the memory of a stressful event.
Those situations, while potentially fraught with risks and tensions, are not typically helped by epinephrine and cortisol (often it’s quite the opposite!). In addition, when stress (and therefore the fight or flight response) becomes chronic, it can damage arteries, increase blood pressure, and raise the risk of strokes and heart attacks. But wait—there’s more. Chronic stress has strong ties to weight gain, fatigue, thyroid issues, hormonal imbalance, and numerous other adverse health effects.
In other words, we don’t want our sympathetic nervous systems turning our normal, bear-free life into one very unhealthy rollercoaster ride. That’s why it’s vital that we learn effective ways to communicate with it. We need to learn how to speak its language so we can tell it to relax.
Thankfully, breathing is a language that can calm our fight or flight response.
In the same way the autonomic nervous system has the sympathetic nervous system in it’s arsenal of stress-response solutions, it also has the parasympathetic nervous system to counterbalance sympathetic’s penchant for action. The parasympathetic nervous system—responsible for the rest and digest response—does just that: it slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, encourages digestion, constricts the pupils, and generally tells the body to relax. Deep (diaphragmatic) breathing directly stimulates this response, which is why the Four Square Breathing technique helped calm my anxiety - it activated my parasympathetic nervous system.
So the next time your body’s efforts to be helpful are actually doing harm, give Four Square breathing a try. It may take you a few minutes, but it can save you years of lost opportunity, embarrassing jitters, foolish fights, pointless stress, and tons of downstream health problems.
There are many other ways mindful breathing can improve your life. I’ll address some of these in future posts. Until then, happy breathing!
DISCLAIMER: This blog post provides a discussion and general information about health and health-related topics - this information is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor is the information a substitute for medical evaluation and treatment. Each individual has unique health conditions and concerns, and therefore the ideas expressed above may not be appropriate or safe for you. Please consult with your primary care physician or other medical professional: before trying anything mentioned in this blog post; if you have any questions that arise in response to this blog post; or regarding any medical concern or health issue you may have. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it out due to something written in this blog post. Please call 9-1-1 immediately in the event of a medical emergency.
The opinions, views, and ideas expressed in this blog post are those of Dr. Nini Callan and do not necessarily represent those of Reconstructed Wellness or the practitioners working there. Nor are they related to any academic/research center, hospital, health practice, or other institution.