How your breath can help combat stress

March 29, 2022

The world’s favourite phrase seems to be ‘I’m so stressed’...which is not surprising! We live in a world where there are stressful situations thrown at us from every direction. Perhaps from overworking, from living in a city that doesn’t sleep or a city in political unrest, having an argument with your partner or even from the stress of deciding what you are going to eat at mealtimes after the diet industry convinced you not to eat carbs. Whether it’s a real or a perceived threat, these all activate the stress response, putting our bodies into fight-or-flight mode (a.k.a.the sympathetic nervous system, SNS). Usually, the body is pretty good at rebalancing after a stressful event and activating the rest-and-digest mode (a.k.a. the parasympathetic nervous system, PNS), however the body rarely gets a chance to do that in modern life due to the constant stream of stressors. This creates chronic stress and chronic activation of the SNS, leaving us feeling anxious, unfocused, agitated and burned out…. sounds familiar?

The stress response

The effect of chronic stress knows no boundaries. It communicates between your brain and body via the gut-brain axis and can have physical and psychological consequences. It can increase our heart rate and blood pressure, it can make our breathing shallow and fast, it can suppress our digestion, and reduce our serotonin levels (a chemical that modulates our mood). This can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. The amygdala and hypothalamus (two parts of the brain responsible for processing emotions) go into overdrive, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can result in fear, anxiety, or aggression. Chronic stress also impairs the ability to pay attention to the body’s signals and to what it’s trying to tell you. It all sounds a little bit dark, right?

It’s impossible to avoid all the stressors of life so we need to find a way of effectively coping with them so we can reduce the negative effects of stress on our health. The best way to counteract the ‘fight-or-flight’ response (i.e. the sympathetic nervous system), is to activate the ‘rest and digest’ response (i.e. the parasympathetic nervous system). But firstly, we need to get back in touch with our body signals in order to notice when we’re feeling stressed and it’s time to take a breather… literally!

How can interoceptive awareness help?

Interoceptive awareness is the ability to perceive and respond appropriately to bodily sensations and emotions. But it’s not always as easy as it seems! If you struggle with unexplainable anxiety, burnout, irritability, poor sleep, or emotional eating, you’ll know what I mean.

A lack of interoceptive awareness can easily result in misinterpreting the physical sensations you feel after an emotional or physical experience, creating a disconnect in the communication between the brain and the body, and making both your thoughts and physical sensations seem ‘untrustworthy’. This can manifest as anxiety, poor relationship with food by misinterpreting cues of hunger or satiety, or bursts of anger, to name a few.

Improving our interoceptive awareness is essential for body and mind integration and to rebuild trust in the body. Noticing when we feel stressed, nauseous, fluttery, satiated or hungry, and taking a step back to listen and respond allows us the space to incorporate coping mechanisms in response to stressful situations.

Your breath can help!

You can get two health benefits in one using practical breathing techniques:

1. You can cultivate interoceptive awareness by slowing down your breath and becoming present in the moment, which allows you to get back in touch with what’s happening internally.

2. You can activate the parasympathetic nervous system (‘rest and digest’), which helps reduce feelings of stress.

All within 5 minutes!

Specific breathing techniques can stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain through the diaphragm and down to the gut. This nerve sends the signal to the brain to slow the breath and the heart rate down, to restore digestion, and to stop the release of stress hormones. Who knew breath was a secret superhero?

Here are two techniques you can try at any point in the day, wherever you are, to de-stress. I’d recommend lying down or finding a comfortable seat…

Box breathing

Begin by exhaling everything out with a sigh out of your mouth.

  1. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, into your lungs and belly
  2. Hold your breath at the top for 4 seconds
  3. Exhale your breath through your nose for 4 seconds
  4. Hold on your exhale for 4 seconds

Repeat for 5 minutes. Feel free to increase the number of seconds if it feels comfortable.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Sit in a comfortable position, take a big breath in, and exhale fully.

  1. Bring one hand up to your face and use your thumb and pinky finger, whilst closing the three in-between fingers down. Place your thumb on your right nostril.
  2. Inhale fully and slowly through the left nostril.
  3. Hold the breath whilst you alternate the nostril. Close your left nostril gently with your pinky finger.
  4. Release your thumb and exhale fully out of your right nostril.
  5. Pause at the end of your exhale, with empty lungs.
  6. Repeat by moving your thumb to close the right nostril, and inhale fully through the left nostril.

Repeat this sequence for up to 5 minutes and pay attention to how it makes you feel.

Breath is such a simple, yet powerful tool for your mind and body. You can always go back to the breath to help you find balance in a stressful world!

Written by India Ruiterman.

India studied psychology at Kings College London, where she conducted an independent research study on stress and the gut-brain axis. India is also interested on how holistic health practices such as breathing techniques and mindfulness can help mitigate the destructive impacts of stress on our mental health.