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The Vicious Cycle of Stress and Breathing

Let’s talk about STRESS… I know a lot of you think you should just toughen up and “push through it”. 

Well, you won’t be able to do it for long. That’s because stress isn’t all “in your mind.” It’s also in your body. 

Your stress response system is a primal reaction… it’s hardwired into your system to keep you safe and alive.  

I am going to outline some important things you need to know about stress and how it affects you and your breathing – info that also will help you: 

  1. Use stress to your best advantage and 
  2. Learn how to conquer it so it doesn’t run (and ruin) your life. 

Stress can actually be a GOOD thing.   

When our ancestors were under threat – whether it was fighting off a predator or dealing with everyday problems like hunting to feed a growing family – their bodies responded energetically to keep them out of harm’s way. 

Our culture has changed a lot since then, but our body’s wiring hasn’t. We react to stress the same way, except our stressors usually don’t require us to outrun a bear. 

And that can have a major impact on your health! 

Let’s go through what happens to your body during a typical stressful situation. Hang in there with me, because it’s pretty eye-opening. 

Let’s pretend you have an interview for a potentially life-changing job at 8 a.m. next Wednesday.  

You really want this job, so you spend a lot of time researching and preparing. 

But then, on Wednesday morning, you wake up and look at your clock, and your eyes widen in horror because it’s 7:15 a.m. Your alarm didn’t go off!  

Here’s a quick outline of what happens in your body.  

  1. Your eyes send that information to your brain’s amygdala, which helps you interpret what you see and hear. 
  1. Your amygdala immediately starts firing away! It sends a distress call to your brain’s command center, your hypothalamus, which talks to the rest of your body through your autonomic nervous system.

Important background info: This system handles all of your involuntary functions, like your breathing, the beating of your heart, and your blood pressure. It works in two parts – the sympathetic (fight or flight) which is like a gas pedal, flooding your body with fuel to outpace danger, and parasympathetic (rest and digest), which is like a brake, calming things down after danger passes. 

  1. As soon as your hypothalamus hears the distress call, it flips on the sympathetic nervous system, telling your adrenal glands to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline) into your bloodstream. 

This is basically your body’s “GO!” juice. 

  1. Your heart beats faster, sending blood to your muscles and other organs. Your airways open wide as your breathing speeds up, allowing more oxygen into your system. Some of that extra oxygen goes to your brain, sharpening your senses and making you more alert.
  1. To power all that action, the epinephrine also prompts your body to release fuel, in the form of extra blood sugar.
  1. All of that happens lightning-fast, before you even have a chance to fully register that your alarm didn’t go off! Your body does this to either give you the fuel you need to run away fast … or go to battle. Which is exactly what you do, by jumping out of bed and springing to action. You have a LOT to do in a short period of time, and so much is riding on this interview! 
  1. Your body kicks on its second stress-response layer, your HPA axis, which consists of your hypothalamus, your pituitary gland, and your adrenal glands.
  1. Your adrenal glands dump cortisol (and more fuel) into your system, to keep your accelerator on until the stress passes.
  1. When you finally hop into your car, you relax a little, triggering your parasympathetic system, which puts the brakes on your stress response so you can start to relax.
  1. But at the interview (which somehow, miraculously, you arrive at on-time!), your sympathetic response kicks back on, keeping you sharp so you can nail the interview. 
  1. On the drive back home, your cortisol levels dip back down, once again triggering your parasympathetic “recovery” system.
  1. As your blood sugar levels dip because your body releases insulin to gobble it up from your system, you feel yourself becoming hungry and tired, or maybe even “hangry” until you can get something to eat.
  1. If this is an isolated issue, you’ll go on your way, having a normal day. But if this is just the latest thing to happen in a series of stressful events – or if you never learned stress-management techniques – your body might not know how to put on your anti-stress brake. 

Over time, this constant revving of your sympathetic nervous system can lead to the habit of heightened breathing (chronic hyperventilation) and health problems that can damage your blood vessels, cause high blood pressure and increase your risk of stroke or heart attack!  

As you can see, learning how to trigger your body’s parasympathetic system is an important part of learning how to de-stress. The good news is, healthy, functional breathing is the back door to your parasympathetic system. Good breathing habits are important to help return to parasympathetic mode! 

This is such a MASSIVE and chronic problem in our culture today, so I wanted to make sure I provide you with real world tips that will help you in your life!  

One of the most important things you can do to help de-stress is to take short relaxation breaks during the course of the day where you sit quietly and focus on relaxing every part of your body. Relaxing your body naturally calms your breathing which in turn helps switch your nervous system to parasympatheric and calms your body!  

Here are some other quick and easy practical tips:  

  • go outside for a short walk (keep your mouth closed!),  
  • listen to calming music,  
  • take a half-hour technology break, or  
  • read (from a real book!).  

You’ll find yourself relaxing almost immediately. 

Taking a few stress breaks during the course of the day isn’t “weak.” It’s actually STRONG, because it helps you take back control. 

As I mentioned earlier, prolonged stress can result in chronic hyperventilation which can also cause a myriad of other health issues occurring over time. Breathing correctly in your day-to-day helps you to be more resilient to stress and helps your body recover from stress faster and better. We need to know how to breathe well 24/7 in order to cope with stress better and avoid acquiring the poor breathing habits that lead to chronic hyperventilation and other health issues.  

This is why, temporary breathwork doesn’t really help in the long run. It only serves as a band-aid for acute breathing events. If you want to have a long-term solution to this, then re-learning how to breathe in a normal, healthy, functional way 24/7 is essential. This is where I can help. As a certified Buteyko practitioner I can help you get your health and wellbeing back on track through breathing retraining. Book in for a 15-minute discovery call now and let’s chat about a pathway to your better health. 

Dina Ceniza professional head shot

Dina Ceniza is a breathing educator and coach (Buteyko Method) and works with clients both online and in-person. Dina has a special interest in stress management and anxiety. Breathing is a very important factor in settling the nervous system and getting your automatic, day-to-day breathing back to functional breathing is an important step to managing stress and anxiety. 

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