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  • Leslie DeMatteo, LMT, MS

Breathing and its connection to stress

Breathing is something we all do, our entire lives, and something to which we rarely pay much attention. Focusing on breathing is one of the only ways to connect the mind and body, and is an essential tool for wellness.

Breathing is particularly important for those who suffer from stress, anxiety, high blood pressure or digestive problems. These symptoms are in many ways the result of the body staying in a fight-or-flight state due to an imbalance of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

The nervous system is divided into two, balancing systems. The parasympathetic system is responsible for the day-to-day functions of the body such as breathing, digestion and elimination (both bowel and urine function). These are things that the body does without any conscious thought. This system also helps to counterbalance the sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of the fight-or-flight response. If one were to encounter a bear in the wild, the body would shut down unnecessary things that could affect escape (i.e. urinating or moving the bowels) and stimulate the parts of the body needed to get out of the situation. The body kicks out stress hormones and adrenaline, gearing it up for battle, resulting in an elevated of heart rate and blood pressure.

It takes just minutes to focus on breathing techniques. You can do them anytime during the day if you feel stressed or on edge. If you practice these methods routinely, you will notice over time that youíre handling the day better, your blood pressure is lower and overall your body is more in balance.

The inability to manage stress appropriately has caused many to be in constant fight-or-flight mode. Since we donít encounter bears all that often, our bodies have adapted to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system for less than life-threatening situations such as arguments with a spouse, issues at work, caring for the children or financial concerns. With time, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated so often that it begins to dominate the parasympathetic nervous system resulting in chronic elevated blood pressure and heart rate, bowel problems, nervousness, anxiety and muscle tension.

To help return balance, the parasympathetic system needs to be strengthened. The only way this can be done is through breath. Although breathing will go on whether we do it consciously or not, focusing on some specific techniques can help get our bodies out of fight-or-flight mode. They can be used short-term to help when experiencing a stressful situation, or daily (ideally multiple times a day) to establish a strong mind-body connection and keep the body in balance.

Dr. Gladd's Breathing Technique:

  • Find a quiet and comfortable place. Make sure the room is not too bright. If you choose to play music, be certain itís relaxing and set to a reasonable volume.

  • Wear comfortable clothing that is not too tight.

  • Stand, sit or lie in a position that keeps the back straight.

  • Start by clearing your mind of all thoughts and focusing only on your breathing. Feel the air come into your lungs and go out of your lungs. Do this for several minutes, getting into a relaxed state.

  • Try for several breaths to make your breathing as slow, deep, quiet and regular as possible.

  • As you continue to focus on your breathing, try to exhale completely, pushing all of the air out of your lungs. You will need to use the muscles between the ribs to do this. Inhale very slowly and fill your lungs back up with fresh air.

  • The next exercise is the most relaxing technique:

  • The tip of your tongue should be against the roof of your mouth, right behind your teeth, during this entire exercise.

  • Close your lips and breathe in for 4 seconds.

  • Hold that breath for 7 seconds.

  • Open your mouth and push your lips out, exhaling that breath for 8 seconds.

  • Repeat steps a-d for a series of 4 breaths.

  • Finish by breathing regularly, continuing to focus on your breathing.

  • You should notice an immediate feeling of peace after completing this exercise.

For more detailed instruction and other breathing techniques, listen to the audio CD by Dr. Andrew Weil, Breathing: The Master Key to Self-Healing.

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