Did you know that the way you breathe sends chemical messages throughout your body that affect your immune system, stress level, blood pressure, and your mood? For example, as your breathing pattern and rate change with stress, it can trigger chest breathing, which is associated with the fight or flight response. One interesting fact about breathing is that it is a voluntary and involuntary process. This means that you have some control over your breathing depth and rate, but your body also breathes automatically.
How you control your breathing is a strategy that physiologists have found effective in reducing stress. This means, simply by changing the technique you use for breathing, you have an influence over your health. This is a strategy that has been taught by the military, yogis, and psychologists. And, it is an important strategy to learn, since while some stress is healthy, chronic stress can harm your overall health.
In an acute situation, also called short-term stress, your body’s response can help you manage a dangerous situation. For example, when you slam on the brakes or are confronted by an attacker, your body undergoes specific hormonal changes that increase your strength and stamina. However, when you experience chronic stress that may last for weeks or months, it can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and menstrual problems. Chronic stress can be triggered by money problems, an unhappy marriage, or global problems such as a recession or a pandemic.
Belly Breathing Activates Your Parasympathetic System
Have you ever watched the baby breathe? You may notice that they breathe only through their nose and their belly rises and falls with each breath, and not their chest. This might feel unnatural to you since many men and women find a flat abdomen attractive and work hard to get strong core muscles. While this is helpful and necessary for good posture and to reduce the risk of a back injury, it is not healthy to hold those muscles in while you’re breathing.
Your breathing is connected to your neurological system. When you’re faced with a dangerous situation, your breathing becomes shallow and you breathe faster. Many of these signals are communicated through the autonomic nervous system. This part of your nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system raises the alarm and the parasympathetic nervous system helps you to calm down. In other words, the fight-or-flight response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system and the brakes are applied to the hormones by the parasympathetic nervous system.
While these changes happen without any input from you during a dangerous situation, you do have some control by using different breathing patterns. Controlled breathing can create real physiological changes that include balancing your carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen levels, increasing feelings of being calm, lowering stress hormones, and lowering your heart rate and blood pressure. Your breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to help you calm down by stimulating the vagus nerve, which in turn helps lower the release of stress hormones.
What’s Your CO2 Tolerance?
Breathing through your nose is another technique that offers specific benefits, including being able to balance the levels of oxygen and CO2 to optimal levels. Mouth breathing tends to increase the potential you’ll over breathe or hyperventilate. This creates a slight imbalance in your CO2 levels, which in turn reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your brain and body tissues.
Your nose also acts as a filter for air pollutants, so when you breathe through your mouth it reduces the ability you have to filter out toxins in the air. As levels of CO2 drop, it also affects your blood pH, which in turn changes how much oxygen is released to the tissues. This is called the Bohr effect. So how do you know what your CO2 tolerance is?
Well, there’s a simple test you can do at home that was developed by a Russian physician, Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko. The test is simple to do and requires only a stopwatch. You can even count the number of seconds to yourself if you don’t have a stopwatch handy. You will be measuring something called the control pause, which is a reflection of your body’s ability to tolerate higher levels of carbon dioxide. Short control pause times are related to low CO2 tolerance. The good news is that with a few exercises, you can raise your CO2 tolerance and improve your exercise endurance. Here’s how to do the test:
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight and comfortable.
- Take a small breath in and out through your nose. After letting out all the air, pinch your nose so no more air can enter.
- Either start counting or start your stopwatch and hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe.
- Start breathing and look at the time.
- Your first breath should be controlled and through your nose. If you feel like you must golf, then you hold it too long.
A control pause of 40 to 60 seconds shows a normal breathing pattern and excellent physical endurance. If your control pause falls between 20 and 40, you’re in the same category as most people. This shows moderate physical endurance and the potential that you may experience health problems in the future. A control pause of 10 to 20 seconds shows poor physical exercise tolerance and it’s highly recommended you do some nasal breathing training and undertake lifestyle modifications.
Three Breathing Techniques to Help Reduce Your Stress and Improve Your Health
You’ll want to practice one or two of these techniques throughout each day to help reduce chronic stress. When you are familiar with the techniques and they become second nature, it’s easy to use them in times of acute stress to help lower your stress level and focus your mind.
In this short video, you’ll see a demonstration of box breathing. This is a technique used by the Navy Seals during high-stress situations. And, if anyone’s under stress and high pressure, it’s a Navy SEAL! The SEALS used this technique to help stay focused and calm and to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
There are four simple steps to box breathing. Some people call it square breathing since a visual representation looks like a box or a square. After you’ve learned the technique, you can use it anywhere you’d like and in any situation since no one will know what you’re doing. Picture a box with four equal sides. The path your breathing will take we’ll go around the box.
Start by inhaling through your nose and into your belly for a count of 4 seconds. Then hold your breath for 4 seconds followed by exhaling for 4 seconds and relaxing for 4 seconds. You’ve now traveled all the way around the box. Breathing through your nose helps get deep into your lungs and stimulate the vagus nerve. Mark Divine, former US Navy SEALs Commander, spoke with a reporter from Forbes magazine about the technique, saying:
“It was instrumental in saving my life several times in crises. I was able to remain calm and focus clearly to avoid reactionary thinking, or worse, panic. I also used the practice to extend my dive duration when using a closed-circuit rebreather – from the customary four hours to nearly five.”
Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrates this breathing technique in the video above that he has adapted from yogic practice. As he describes in the video, there is a process of the breathing technique and also of how often and how long you should employ the technique each day. In just a few short months, most people experience changes in their resting heart rate and blood pressure that can have significant long-term health effects on your cardiovascular system.
The technique is a simple three-step process that begins by exhaling all of your air and then breathing in through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale forcefully for a count of eight. As Dr. Weil explains it is often helpful to purse your lips. The strategy is simple and can be done just about anywhere. After practice, it can be used to help you fall asleep more easily at night and to help reduce anxiety and stress during tense situations.
This breathing exercise was developed as part of a number of strategies doctor Konstantin Buteyko used with his patients. Essentially, the technique is designed to slow your breathing and create a slight air hunger, which increases your CO2 levels. The three core principles of the Buteyko method are nasal breathing, reduced breathing and relaxation. You can practice this while driving in the car, in front of your computer, or making dinner. With practice, the technique helps to increase your CO2 tolerance and improve your health. The strategy helps to focus your mind, relax your body, and retrain your breathing.
Although these strategies are simple, they are also highly effective. Each breathing technique has a different short-term impact on your health and stress levels. Ultimately though, each technique also improves your cardiovascular health and raises your overall health.