Kill Stress to Death with Your Breath, Pt 1

The Deal with Stress

Stress isn’t anything new to people. Right? We’ve been talking about this stress thing for a while at this point. Yet, we watch as the stress from 2020 is destroying people’s lives. From death and loss to the friction created as a result of politics and social isolation from lockdown, the stress levels in all of us have all been impacted in some way or another.

That’s the whole deal with 2020, right? This has been one of the most stressful years for a lot of people regardless of their stance on politics or the Coronavirus. We have all been impacted in some way shape or form and many of us are stressed the eff out.

Loss, change, uncertainty, and many other challenges have shown up unexpectedly for many of us. I died in January right before all this COVID madness even happened…so, don’t even get me started lol!

There has been a lot that has been said when it comes to the breath and breathing practices. There is more than I could ever hope to cover in a single article. Ironically, having hoped to keep this to one short article, this predicament turned this ‘single article’ into what will need to be more. So, this is Part 1 in a multipart series.

Regardless, I hope by the end of this, you have some ideas about how you can use the breath to directly improve the quality of your life. And, if you already have a breathing practice, I hope this adds more fuel to your tank so that you may have a more fruitful practice!

I have included a couple of breathing practices at the end of this to help you get started. As the other parts in this series release, we will build on the information and practice. By the end of all this, you will know for certain how to, “Kill Stress to Death with Your Breath” and be a happy little peach playing in the sun! That’s my hope anyway…and, I guess, you can be whatever you want…you don’t have to be a little peach if you don’t want to.

Either way…

…breathing is one of those things that we do, literally, all the time. We all have some sort of basic relationship with it whether we think about it or not. Yet, it is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to directly alter our experience of life.

I want to actually say that again because I think it’s so freaking important…

Breathing is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to directly alter our experience of life.

Research has also shown that emotions can be differentiated by their breathing pattern. The breath is a profound and wonderful thing that we have barely scratched the surface of fully understanding.

Thousands of years ago though, a bunch of dudes (mostly dudes anyway) were sitting in caves, just hangin out, doing some breathing practices (or whatever it is that one did back then that lead to discovering cool things about the breath), and intuitively figured out the connection between our breath and our bodily experience. Now, we can find breathing practices in many spiritual traditions.

One such book written on the subject, Breath by James Nestor, reports that 90% of us breathe incorrectly which leads to a variety of illnesses and diseases.

Learning to regulate our breathing can help us improve stress, our sleep, and induce tranquility to help us, “chill out.” Perhaps, one of the most important benefits of having a breathing practice is that it helps us better regulate our stress response.

Stress really fucks our body up! Sorry, I apologize for the language (that whole prepositional ending gets to me) but, really, I can’t understate how badly stress messes up our bodies.

Stress destroys people’s lives. This is not hyperbole.

The American Psychological Association reports that stress has significant effects on our body, “stress affects all systems of the body including muscles, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems.” Stress shuts our body down and does an incredible amount of damage.

According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress contributes to:

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have witnessed in the past several months about people experiencing memory loss and depression. This is a very real byproduct of the stress response being dysregulated (we will actually dive more into this idea and the physiological mechanisms at work in Part 2). Learning how to regulate our breathing gives us a direct ability to readjust our stress response.

Breathing to be present

There’s a reason breathing is a core component of mindfulness practice. Focusing on the breath brings us back to the present moment. The present is where the magic happens; this is when and where we make change. We can’t change the past and when the future happens, it will be now. It’s always just now. The breath as it’s happening in the moment gives us a foothold in the present.

When we are present, we can empower change more easily by being relaxed and being present with the demands of the moment. Being relaxed and present means we are better able to improvise and attend to the demands of the moment as they arise. When we are relaxed, we can be more agile, creative, and open moment by moment. Which, as we will see in Part 2, has a basis in our physiology by way of parasympathetic activation, the relaxation response, and higher-level cognitive processes.

All of the habits and patterns that we want to work on in our life that just seem to stubbornly hang on can be more easily addressed when approached with a relaxed and present awareness. We can be more present by practicing deep breathing regularly to train our physiology to be relaxed.

“Relaxation is the doorway to both wisdom and compassion.” — Tara Brach

Here’s the whole deal:

The brain and the body have a stress response to help the body functionally deal with stress and take action throughout a human body’s lifetime. The problem is when the stress response becomes dysregulated. This is devastating to our body in more ways than one.

The Stress Response in Action

  1. The limbic system, mostly the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus, work in concert to process perceived fear and threat signals.
  2. The limbic system processes these signals and sends that information to the hypothalamus.
  3. The hypothalamus activates your HPA Axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to mobilize the body to respond to threats — e.g. increased heart rate, elevate blood pressure, the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, etc.
  4. Prolonged activation, dysfunction, and dysregulation in the stress response can lead to a host of illnesses and diseases — chronic stress.
  5. Turning the stress response off can be done by using deep belly breathing to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and stimulate the vagus nerve.
  6. Activating the PNS and vagus nerve through the breath regulates heart rate variability (HRV)
  7. HRV has been associated with lower stress and disease. It also shows a negative association with cardiovascular disease and can predict hypertension.

How the mechanics of this work to facilitate this process will be the point of Part 2 of this series. For now…it’s helpful just to know that this is the process so we can start working on attending to our breathing. I, personally, find it helpful to know why this is important and how it works.

Ideas worth mentioning

Before we get into the exercises, here are some ideas about breathing:

  • Quick side note: be careful, consult a physician, listen to your body when doing breathing practices.
  • Do breathing exercises ideally sitting or lying down where you won’t hurt yourself from falling over, get dizzy, or anything else where you can potentially be hurt.
  • It can be helpful to divide the bodily experience of the breath into 4 parts, the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen, the mid chest, and the upper chest.
  • It can also be helpful to divide the process of breathing into 4 phases — inhale, inhale end, exhale, exhale end, repeat.
  • Many different breathing practices and pranayama (a system of yogic deep breathing practices) have variations of length and hold time with the different phases of breath. As your breathing practices expand, these are areas that may be altered for different effect.
  • The breath can bring us back to our body if we find that we are disconnecting or dissociating. The breath can soothe our internal response by way of parasympathetic activation so we don’t emotionally disconnect from our body.
  • Throughout the day, check-in with yourself about your breathing. What do you notice? Do you notice yourself holding your breath? Not breathing into your belly?
  • Nose breathing vs mouth breathing — breathe through your nose. Put simply, “mouth breathing can cause major health problems”.
  • I personally have learned different breathing techniques that say to breathe in through the nose and out through the nose, and others that say to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I personally haven’t come across any research specifically on nose vs mouth out-breath. Do what feels most natural to you.
  • The power of habit is best employed with breathing practices. Pick a day and time that you intend to practice and stick to it. Breathing practices are most beneficial when practiced over time.
  • It’s best to practice breathing exercises on an empty stomach. Though, there are some specific practices that are helpful for digestion.

Here are a couple of breathing exercises for you.

The ‘make that deep diaphragm action happen’ breath

  • This breath can be really good if you find that you breathe a lot in your chest or breathe shallowly. It can also be good to practice for anxiety.
  • If you experience anxiety, you can do this to calm your body. Shallow and rapid breathing are commonly associated with anxiety. Engaging in slow deep breathing can activate the PNS to put your body into a relaxed state.
  • Sit down on the ground cross-legged, on a cushion, in a chair, or where you feel most comfortable, with a straight spine. Tilt your head down slightly and shut or droop your eyelids.
  • If you find it difficult to engage your lower belly, or just want added emphasis on the diaphragm, you can sit in the Vajrasana yoga pose — on your knees sitting back on top of your feet, with big toes touching.
  • Place one hand in the space below your belly button and above your pubic bone. Put your other hand on your upper abdomen, above your belly button.
  • Isolate your breathing into your lower abdomen and focus on breathing into the area of your lower hand.
  • Once you feel comfortable and able to breathe into your lower abdomen without feedback from your hands, feel free to relax your hands in your lap or on your thighs.
  • Part of being able to stimulate deep diaphragm action is by starting the breath in the body as low as possible and allow it to fill your lungs upward.
  • If you have a hard time getting deep abdominal activation, tighten your stomach muscles just a tiiiiny bit with your hands placed on your abdomen as you breathe in. This will help push your diaphragm deeper into your core.
  • You should be able to feel the lower abdomen activate first when breathing slowly. Focus on breathing into the lower then upper abdomen slowly, with a little movement into the mid-chest.
  • Start with 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out, slow it down over time, and find a pace that works well for you
  • Do this for a couple / few minutes, or longer…whatever feels right for you and your body. Again, the key is to really listen to your body.

I personally do a variation of this one at night and really helps to get me relaxed and prepared for sleep.

The Mindful Breath

  • This breathing practice relies less on the location of where in your body you feel your breath and more on the pace and awareness of the breathing process and sensations. Though, with that being said, you still want to focus on belly breathing to ensure you are deeply activating your diaphragm while breathing.
  • In addition to reducing anxiety, mindful breathing has also been shown to, “increase positive automatic thoughts.”
  • Sit in a chair or on the ground cross-legged, or on a cushion. Keep your spine straight and tilt your head down slightly to lower your gaze. Rest your palms in your lap on your thighs. Close your eyes or lower your eyelids if you prefer.
  • Notice the sensation of your breathing. Follow it in and out. Notice the sensation you feel in your nose and belly as the air passes through, fills you up, and then leaves your body.
  • As your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your breath. Your mind will wander, it’s part of the process. The key is to non-judgmentally bring your awareness back to the present. This is a key part of the process — bringing your attention back to your breath repeatedly.
  • If you notice that you judge yourself if you lose focus on your breath or your mind wanders, it’s a great opportunity to practice forgiving yourself.
  • Give space to your thoughts without attaching to them. Watch them float by like clouds in the sky.
  • Notice sensations as they arise in your body without judging or being attached to them. Can you sit mindfully with that itch as you breathe? How compelled do you feel to relieve it?
  • Start with 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out, slow it down over time, and find a pace that works well for you.
  • Do this for a couple / few minutes, or longer…whatever feels right for you and your body. Again, the key is to really listen to your body.

These can also be great to use when you get stressed out or frustrated by something. Give yourself a few minutes to sit down and breathe. This can help you reset your nervous system and get you back into a groove if you have been unexpectedly knocked off track.

I hope there was something helpful here for you. In Part 2, we will take a look at the physiological mechanisms at work during the stress response to get a better idea about what’s happening in the body. There will then be additional breathing exercises we can use to build on top of what we just explored to help you create the ideal breathing practice for yourself.

Comment and let me know what was helpful for you or any questions about breathing practices that you may have.

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Michael Ceccon

Michael Ceccon

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Michael is a man of many hats: counselor, entrepreneur, organizational ninja, philosopher, meditator, coffee junkie, and lover of animals.