On breathing and stress

On breathing and stress
Photo by Gift Habeshaw / Unsplash

Stress is simply the response to a stimulus.

The stimulus is something external and can be anything - something someone says, the volume of emails you’ve got to deal with, the driver in front who cut you up.

The bodily response is involuntary. It’s the job of the autonomic nervous system to mount this response. You don’t choose to raise your blood pressure or increase your heart rate, it just happens. It’s in unconscious. This is great if you meet a lion in the jungle. It’s not so great if your boss sent you an email late in the evening.

There are two antagonist halves of your autonomic nervous system:

  • the parasympathetic - “rest and digest”, chill out mode
  • the sympathetic - “fight or flight”, get wound up mode

So if this stress response is controlled by your autonomic nervous system, it’s automatic, and you can’t control right? The clue is in the name: autonomic, surely… Well, actually you can control your autonomic nervous system.

You see, there is one, and only one, bridge between the autonomic and somatic (voluntary) nervous system. Only one thing that you can consciously do to affect your unconscious or autonomic response. Breathing.

And why is breathing the one bridge? Because breathing is autonomic - we do it without thinking (I’m proud to say I can even do it in my sleep). And we can also consciously control breathing - it is the bridge between the two halves.

Breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, and the vagus nerve is the control over the parasympathetic nervous system. That is, the job of the vagus nerve is “rest and digest”, to calm and de-stress you.

Long, slow, deep breaths send your body into a parasympathetic, “rest and digest” mode. With deep breathing you can interrupt your automatic response, and take control.

There are lots of variations on a theme, but try box breathing or 4-7-8 Breathing. Both these will have you breathing just 3 to 4 times a minute. And the outcome will be a relaxed state.

If you find breathing and breathwork interesting, like I do, then the book Breath by James Nestor is fantastic and I highly recommend it.

The power of the breath is truly incredible - from free-divers who can hold their breath for over 10 minutes, to Wim Hof and his world-record immersions in ice. Even in childbirth breathing methods have a very real place for pain relief, often completely replacing medical intervention.

If you’ve read this far, take a deep breath, thank you. 😊