In times of stress, worry, and fear we tend to either speed up or hold our breath. This stress response happens automatically due to our innate fight, flight, or freeze response. Depending on the situation, our breath either becomes faster and shallower as it tries to prepare our body to fight or flee, or it stops completely as part of the freeze response in a stressful situation. As a local Hermosa Beach therapist, I often work with teens, young adults, and adults in the South Bay on stress reduction techniques. One of the most effective strategies involves working with their breathing to help them calm their nervous systems. This is part of an overall approach that I use in my practice called Somatic Experiencing (SE). SE provides my clients an opportunity to engage, complete, and resolve the body’s instinctual fight, flight, or freeze response. Find out more below about the different types of breathing our bodies naturally practice and the ways in which we can influence them to help self-regulate.
In a relaxed state, our breathing is slow and calm. When we are not under stress, we mainly breathe from our diaphragm/abdomen and take deeper, lengthier breaths. If you observe a baby in a relaxed and happy state, you will notice that their abdomen moves out and in naturally in correspondence with their inhale and exhale. There is usually little movement in their chest because their breaths come from deep within their body. Studies have shown that relaxed abdominal breathing stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System which in turn reduces anxiety levels and muscle tension.
In contrast to relaxed abdominal breathing, stressed chest breathing involves the chest moving up and down when we inhale and exhale with very little movement in our abdomen. In a stressed state, our breathing is fast and shallow in the confines of our chest. In a state of extreme stress, we tend to hold our breath in our chest all together and stop ourselves from breathing. If you were to observe a baby who is under stress, you will notice that his/her breathing changes from slow abdominal breathing to fast chest breathing or it comes to a halt. This type of breathing triggers the Sympathetic Nervous System, stimulating the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Although breathing is mainly controlled by our Autonomic Nervous System, there are some ways in which we can influence it to help turn off our fight, flight, or freeze response and reduce stress. First and foremost, we have to enhance our capacity to control our breath. This starts with simply becoming familiar with the two types described above. Greater control over our breath allows us to switch from halted or fast, shallow chest breathing to relaxed abdominal breathing. When we are able to slow our breathing, we are sending signals to our brain that the stress is over and we are safe. Once our brain registers this sense of safety, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) takes over to calm the Sympathetic Nervous System and the biochemical and physiological responses activated by the fight, flight, or freeze response. Once the PNS is on line, our body is able to return to homeostasis.
Learning how to slow your breath takes a lot of time and practice. When we are under stress, it is natural for our body to become highly activated in its attempt to protect us from a perceived threat or danger. It can sometimes be difficult to gain conscious control over something that is normally unconscious and automatic. My next blog for this month will therefore contain a guide to several breathing exercises you can do to help build your capacity to self-regulate and return to a relaxed state when faced with stress and anxiety. If you have any questions regarding the breath or breathing exercises, feel free to contact me. If you or a loved one are in need of extra assistance in combating stress, please call or email me to schedule an appointment. I look forward to hearing from you soon!