Breathing and stress

    Stress is a normal part of our everyday life. Sensitivity and vulnerability to it varies and different situations elicit people at different levels of stress. It is a part of top level sport too and successful individuals can not only manage stress, moreover they can use it to their own advantage. Stress is closely connected with our breathing and a change in one area generates changes in the other. Long-term stress on the one hand contributes to the creation of incorrect breathing patterns. On the other hand, through breathing modification and exercises we are able to reduce stress level and relax the body effectively.
    The stress reaction of the body causes our breathing becomes faster and shallower. The individual cycles become shorter and we breathe more with chest. One of the physiological symptoms of stress is muscle tension in shoulders, neck, abdominal and lumbar parts. Stiff and tight abdominal muscles do not allow the diaphragm to move freely and suck in enough air. Therefore, breathing shifts more into the shoulder and chest part. This way of breathing is however insufficient and do not provide organs and muscles enough oxygen. Our body systems are not working properly and that´s one of the reason why long-term stress can cause serious health problems. An athlete with high level of stress during the competition becomes exhausted much faster.
    It is important to remember that proper breathing can help us relieve stress and its effects on the body. By focusing on respiration and breathing exercises we can relax the body and reduce the the level of stress. Try the following exercise: for a moment, calmly sit or lie down, focus attention on your breath, on movements of your abdomen while exhaling and inhaling. Just slightly extend the inhale and exhale phases. What happened? Probably your body is more relaxed. If you have previously felt some tension, it should be at least slightly released. Body and mind are very closely linked, so a change in one of them can very effectively influence the other. To work with stress, try the following tips:

  1. Observe your own breathing and muscle tension. To find out what level of stress you are experiencing, focus attention on two things. The first one is the way you breathe; the second one is the muscle tension in shoulders, neck and abdomen. It happens that people do not realize their own stress. Common worries, busy daily routine, we get used to a certain level of physical or mental stress that we do not perceive it. However, long-term (sometimes unconscious) stress threatens our health.
  2. Practice proper way of breathing. The corner-stone is in diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. The lungs can be fully filled when the diaphragm is free enough to move in the vertical direction. For that you need to relax abdominal and hip muscles. You can practice it anywhere and anytime, while watching TV, doing sport, walking, in office, car or public transport. First observe your breathing and muscle tension in the abdomen. While inhaling diaphragm should go down as much as possible towards the hips, while exhaling freely upwards. When doing this exercise try to relax the abdominal muscles and the muscles around the shoulders and neck.
  3. Breathing exercises 4x4 for relaxation. Make longer and calm inhale on four counts, hold your breath for a while and slowly exhale again on four counts. You can extend the duration of the exhalation in the ratio 6:3 or 8:4. When you exhale, visualize releasing tension from your body. Repeat several times.
  4. Exercise inflating balloon. Relax your abdominal muscles and imagine that using the diaphragm you can inflate the balloon in that part of your body. When you inhale slowly inflate balloon in the lower abdomen. When you exhale, balloon deflates by itself. Repeat several times. It is important that diaphragm should move downwardly into the lower abdomen. Exercise should relax your body and reduce the current level of stress.
You can use the last two exercises before an important competition, game, presentation or when you feel too nervous and tense. I wish you a healthy and effective breathing and let me know your experience with breathing in stressful situations.