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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Bust Holiday Stress with Proper Breathing

Dec 02, 2013 03:40PM ● By Steve Ross, MA

The holidays take a lot of energy and for many people, their blood pressure is rising. Despite our good intentions of making these the best holidays ever as host or celebrant, it can be a stressful time. Our reactions, created and sustained by our thoughts, usually keep us under stress long after the original problem has been resolved, yet of all internal and external stressors, thoughts are the most amenable to change.

Easing stress is largely an “inside” job, because we can change our thinking, while our control over external events and other people’s behavior is notoriously weak. Among the many ways to manage stress and stressful thoughts, one method so immediate and effective, so accessible, natural and absolutely impossible not to do, stands head and shoulders above the rest: breathing.

Breathing is the secret control switch of the autonomic nervous system, our usually automatic, supersensitive red-alert system. Usually, the instant we perceive danger, adrenaline and cortisol pour into the bloodstream, we hyperventilate, heart rate and blood pressure soar, we sweat (making us slippery and harder to grab), our thoughts suddenly sharpen and all available energy is redirected for self-defense or escape. This is fight-or-flight. As soon as the “all clear” sounds, the relaxation response calms us down and brings us back to normal. Unfortunately, most of our crises don’t have clear-cut endings and we seldom reach “all clear.” Our “normal” may always mean “stressed out”, subjecting us to a continual low-level fight-or-flight response.

Breathing is the manual override, giving us external control over the system. While rapid, shallow breathing activates the stress response, slow or fast abdominal (diaphragmatic) breathing in the lower lobes of the lung, stops fight-or-flight in its tracks. It is impossible to hyperventilate when breathing abdominally. When you feel anxious or stressed, if you consciously relax your tummy and bring your breath down so the belly moves out when you inhale and in when you exhale, you instantly and automatically switch off fight-or-flight and turn on the relaxation response.

And when we consciously shift our attention from negative, even catastrophic thinking, to how we breathe, we exit the stress zone. For most people, breath awareness is stress-free. Dr. Andrew Weil says that breathing is the safest place to park your mind. And in “park”, we don’t go anywhere. We just breathe, and we find that there is no stress when intentionally dwelling in the present moment, focused on our breathing.

Abdominal breathing is our natural breath at birth, but we’re soon socialized out of it, learning to tighten the stomach, sucking it in, shutting down feelings by holding our breath. We want tight abs to keep looking good, creating a vicious circle: tight abs freeze the diaphragm, the lower lung can’t fill, forcing the air upwards, we hyperventilate, activating fight-or-flight, and there goes the very attractiveness we were tightening up for in the first place.

Try this: Lie down on your back, with one hand on your tummy and the other just below your throat. Breathe normally. You’ll probably feel the belly moving out when you inhale and in when you exhale. Notice other movement too, in the sides and back. You are now breathing abdominally. Everyone “belly breathes” when lying down, because no one needs to tighten their stomach muscles in a relaxed position. This is important. It means you have a choice of how to breathe.

Belly breathing feels good. It’s calming, relaxing and easy to do; you could even fall asleep. In fact, the combination of deep relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing promotes sound sleep. Belly breathing not only triggers the relaxation response, immediately shutting down fight-or-flight, it also improves circulation, metabolism and immune function, facilitates weight control (stops cortisol production), helps detoxify the lymph and even stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s own morphine-like pain killer, to relieve chronic pain.

The goal is to breathe abdominally as much of the time as possible. It’s really just a question of assessment and a little training, then continued awareness; consciously exercising the choice of how to breathe. Relax the tummy every time you think of it. Notice your breathing whenever it occurs to you. This will keep you at your best, feeling stress-free and moving toward becoming stress-resistant during the holidays and beyond.

Steve Ross, MA, MFT, is a stress reduction and relaxation specialist and breathing coach. He is part of WellnessFirst!, a collaborative, holistic community of practitioners in Tucson. For more information, visit