How Stress Can Change Our Breath

We’re now midway through this series of articles and have learned a lot about breathing. We’ve learned that stress changes the way we breathe. It’s time to further explore why that may be! 

Our breath is intricately connected to our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of our body’s electric circuitry that is involved in sending messages from our brain to and from our internal organs to control their automatic functions such as heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion and many more. It’s the part of our body that controls how we respond to stress in our environment.  

This system is divided into two parts, one called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the other the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). These two systems work together in opposites. The SNS is often called our “fight or flight” system as it creates a quick response to get us to react. The PNS is often called our “rest and digest” system and takes care of restoring and repairing our body. Our brain takes care of balancing these functions every moment of our life whether or not we’re paying attention. 

Take this classic example: You’re walking in the woods and suddenly encounter a bear! Your SNS kicks in and your body releases a surge of adrenaline. You begin to breathe faster to bring in more oxygen. Your heart starts beating faster to pump more blood to your muscles. Your blood vessels constrict, bringing blood away from your vital organs so that there’s more available for your brain and muscles. Digestion is put on hold. Your muscles begin to tense up in preparation of fighting or running away. Once the threat is gone, these effects begin to reverse through the increased action of the PNS. This slows down the heart rate. Your breathing rate begins to slow and your breaths get deeper. You relax the tensed muscles. Your blood vessels dilate to bring blood flow back to our vital organs so that you can get back to digesting and restoring your body. 

You may be asking yourself, “What’s the use of knowing all of this? I’m never in a situation where I’d encounter a bear!” 

The problem is that this stress response occurs even in the absence of a bear. The stresses of everyday life and recurring worrisome thoughts can trigger the EXACT same physiological response! This can lead to excessive muscle tension, indigestion, increases blood pressure and over-breathing to name a few. These changes have been shown to influence pain, anxiety, depression and other health issues. 

What can we do about this?

We can breathe! Becoming aware of our breath has been shown to immediately calm our stress response by activating the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. Tuning into our breath can be the answer to gaining control over this stress-response and finding relief!  

For more on how we can harness the breath to ease our body and mind, tune into our next article! 

Intro : Dare to Breathe
1. The Diaphragm: Life and Breath
2. Breath: Supply and Demand
3. Breathing and Joint Mobility
4. The Diaphragm: A Web of Connection

5. Breath and Emotion 
6. How Stress Can Change Our Breath 
7. Breath Awareness: a Powerful Tool to Bridge the Body and Mind
8. Breath Regulation: Empower Yourself!
9. Mindfulness and Meditation: the Power of Awareness
10. Yoga: Transforming the Body and Mind

Pearson N, Prosko S, Sullivan M (Eds). Yoga and Science in Pain Care: Treating the Person in Pain. London, Uk: Singing Dragon Publishers