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Why Are Breathing Exercises Effective During Stressful Situations

Inhale, exhale.

Breathing is voluntary and natural, but did you know that lung capacity decrease as you age?

An average person who lives up to 80 years old can take more than 672 million breaths in his lifetime. But your way of breathing changes in your 60’s or 70’s from when you were younger because lung capacity decreases due to natural body changes.

Deep breathing is a technique to help calm the body and mind. It also helps maximize your lung capacity. Constant breathing exercises help relieve shortness of breath from age, acute and chronic lung diseases, and your body trying to compensate with stress.

How do breathing exercises help with body and mind relaxation?

The body has a natural ability to react during times of stress, especially when a threat is apparent. This body’s way of coping is called the fight-flight response. It enables a person to compensate or survive a stressful time through physical manifestations like sweaty palms, rapid and increased heart rate, and fast-short breathing. In a true emergency these physical changes help your body to run away faster or if necessary, fight to defend yourself. This

While the fight-flight response helps the body survive an actual threat, it can also be triggered by stressful times like losing a loved one, anxieties, and other physical and mental stressors. When that happens, your body reacts as if an apparent threat is present, making it hard for you to function normally. Deep breathing techniques can help you consciously override your fight-flight response and prevent your body from overreacting to your stress triggers.

How does it work? 

Slow deep breaths have been known to ease stress and manage hyperventilation time and time again. A muscle located just below your lungs called the diaphragm is activated when we breathe. It pulls the rib cage flat making room for your lungs to fill with fresh air and then it releases. The diaphragm is also connected to the lining around your heart, viscera, and lungs. As your diaphragm contracts and releases, each of these internal organ systems is rhythmically massaged. Our breathing process can be either subconscious and automatic like when we are sleeping or conscious and controlled. When we control our breathing with exercises that regulate the duration, depth, and frequency of each breath we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, also sometimes referred to as the rest and digest nervous system.

How to handle a stressful situation with breathing exercises?

Lie down or get into a comfortable position before doing the following:

 1. Close your eyes while taking deep breaths. Keeping your eyes shut while filling your lungs with air makes it easier for you to focus on your breathing. Inhaling deeply through the nose, and counting to three before exhaling through pursed lips, reduces the number of breaths you take, enables a stable oxygen and carbon dioxide flow, and keeps your airways open much longer. 

2. Be mindful of your breathing. Proper breathing means your belly should inflate as you breathe in and deflates as you exhale. Sometimes during a stressful time, you may find it hard to pay attention to your breaths so you can place your hand on your belly to feel it expand as you inhale and deflate as you exhale.

 3. Repeat until you feel relaxed and calm.

Whether you are tired, stressed, or not, practicing breathing exercises can improve your quality of life by maximizing your lung capacity and managing your stress and anxieties better.

Sources:

National Center for Biotechnology Information, NIH
Lung Institute

 

Curtis Harvie, DNP, FNP-BC, AHN-BC

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