Breath Your Stress Away

Stress happens and when it does, it can overwhelm anyone of us choking our ability to function adequately resulting in anxiety, insomnia and depression.  The vise grip of stress can also manifest itself by affecting the most basic of our human existence – our breathing.

Stress’s effect on breathing

Stress affects breathing in more ways than we may realize.  Our breathing is affected because it is an automatic function of the body controlled by the respiratory center of the brain.   Stress overload can result in causing our breathing rate to change as part of the “fight-or-flight” response when tensions mount.

One way is by causing us to take shallow, rapid breathes to the point of actually hyperventilating or causing a panic attack in certain people who may be prone to panic attacks.  Anxious people use small, shallow breathing using their shoulders instead of their diaphragm to breathe in air.  When we inhale we take in oxygen while exhaling expels carbon dioxide.  Shallow, rapid breathing disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide and will prolong feelings of anxiety making the symptoms worse. 

Stress can also cause us to breathe harder which for most of us is not a problem but for someone with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen they need to breathe easier can be difficult.

Major stress such as learning of the death of a loved one can actually trigger asthma attacks causing the airway between the nose and the lungs to constrict.

Using controlled breathing to relieve stress

Fortunately, we all have the ability to take control and deliberately change our breathing pattern.  Several studies have shown that when we practice controlled breathing, it can help manage stress and stress-related conditions.  One study even showed how controlled breathing can improve anxiety and depression in patients hospitalized with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Practicing controlled breathing is an ideal way to reduce and relieve stress that can be done anywhere, anytime and with quick results.  The goal is to learn to gain control of stress by using abdominal breathing to relax and gain command of the nervous system.   By relaxing and breathing in through the nose in a slow, even tempo, it calms the nervous system in the following ways:

·         Reduces blood pressure and heart rate – try doing this next time you have your blood pressure and heart rate taken – it will be reduced.

·         Reduces levels of stress hormones

·         Lowers build-up of lactic acid

·         Results in a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood

·         Improves immune system functioning

·         Enhances energy levels

·         Leads to feelings of calm and well-being

Learning controlled breathing to help reduce feelings of stress is not hard to accomplish but practice is key.  Practice makes perfect when training your body to use controlled breathing.  That way the next time stress hits, this type of breathing will automatically kick in to get you through it.   


The amount of time involved practicing can be as short as three to five minutes or as lengthy as 20 minutes or more.  It basically involves inhaling through the nose for a certain amount of seconds and then exhaling through the mouth for a few more seconds in an even tempo.  Good posture and staying focused are important keys to making it work and seeing the biggest benefits.