Breathing and Stress


When under stress, most people have a tendency to hold their breath or breathe short, shallow breaths from the chest while tensing their muscles. These actions significantly decrease the oxygen supply to the brain and intensify feelings of anxiety or panic.  Sighing can also be a sign that your body needs more oxygen.  By forcing you to exhale when you sigh, your body is making sure that you take in at least one big breath after clearing your lungs. 

Even though the average person breathes about twenty thousand times a day, many of us are still starved for oxygen because we do not breathe deeply enough. Since oxygen is necessary to produce pure energy, we end up feeling tired and stressed when we breathe too lightly. Lack of fresh air in our home and stagnant air in our work environments also results in a decreased level of oxygen supplied to the brain, making it difficult for us to think clearly. 

Most of us use only a small portion of our lungs for breathing, which allows stale air to build up in the unused portions. Fortunately, deep breathing and aerobic exercise help exchange this stale air for fresh air because these activities use more of the total lung space.

Oxygen is carried to your heart, brain, and the rest of your body by your blood. Breathing from the upper chest (also called shallow breathing) automatically limits the amount of oxygen that you take in. For your blood to carry a sufficient amount of oxygen to all of the different parts of your body, it must circulate faster when you do not breathe deeply enough.  For this reason, shallow breathing puts a strain on the cardiovascular system and can contribute to high blood pressure.

By mastering “diaphragmatic” or “deep belly” breathing, you can actually lower your heart rate and prevent feelings of anxiety or panic. The next time you find yourself slipping into your usual way of dealing with a stressful situation, immediately stop and concentrate on your breathing. The most effective thing you can do to break the vicious cycle of mishandling a stressful situation is to breathe deeply and continuously from your stomach.

To increase your understanding of exactly what should happen to your body as you practice correct deep breathing, please take a moment now to familiarize yourself with the simple Breath of Life exercise below:

First, pay attention to how you are breathing at this very moment. Are you breathing long, slow, deep breaths from your stomach, or short shallow breaths from your chest? Look at your stomach. Does it expand and contract as you breathe? With optimal deep abdominal breathing, your stomach should visibly expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale.

Now, stand in an upright position with your head up, shoulders back, and arms relaxed. Place your hands loosely around your waist with your fingers touching your lower rib cage and upper stomach. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Breathing in through your nose naturally filters the air, while breathing through your mouth does not. 

As you inhale, you should feel your rib cage and stomach noticeably expand under your fingertips. After your stomach has filled with air, your chest should expand slightly on the last part of the in-breath.

Now, slowly release the breath through your mouth, using your abdominal muscles to push your stomach in, gently forcing out the stale air that has built up in your lungs over time. You should be able to feel your abdominal muscles contracting under your fingers as you exhale. When breathing correctly, you should be able to hear yourself slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. The deeper you inhale and exhale, the more you will be exchanging old stale air with fresh, new, energizing, oxygenated air. 

Repeat this exercise as often as you wish being careful not to hyperventilate. Temporarily return to your normal pattern of breathing if you become dizzy or light headed while practicing this exercise. If you are a consistently shallow breather, it may take your body some time to adapt to this new way of exchanging air through your lungs.

Give yourself permission to slow down, smell the flowers, and take the time necessary to create a more peaceful, powerful, and energetic state of being by practicing deep breathing on a consistent basis. Not only will you be preventing and reducing stress, but you will also discover an internal state of harmony simply by doing what comes naturally—breathing the energizing breath of pure life!