Stress can take a toll on your health – here’s one strategy for dealing with it. Breathing exercises are a take-anywhere, no-equipment-required tool for stress reduction, and there’s a lot of research showing that they actually help reduce your body’s stress response.
What’s Going On: Stress and Autonomic Imbalance
A quick review of your body’s stress response: the “fight or flight” response, aka the sympathetic nervous system, is the way humans have evolved to respond to stress. The most notorious hormone involved in the fight or flight response is cortisol, the “stress hormone,” but there’s also adrenaline, noradrenaline, and a couple others. Anything physically or emotionally stressful (e.g. tight deadlines, hard workouts, or sleep deprivation) ramps up sympathetic nervous system activity.
The counterpoint to the “fight or flight”/sympathetic response is the “rest and digest” parasympathetic response.
If your sympathetic nervous system is too active and your parasympathetic nervous system isn’t active enough, that’s called autonomic imbalance.
Most of us walk around in a semi-permanent state of autonomic imbalance – that’s basically what chronic stress is. And at this point, basically everyone understands how bad that is – it’s a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity – basically, all the “diet and lifestyle” diseases have some roots in chronic stress/autonomic imbalance.
(If you want to read more about all the dangers of stress, you can do that here, or here – but the point of this article is how to tackle stress, not why stress is bad, so we’ll skip over the details of the doom and gloom for now).
Breathing and Stress
We’ve previously covered stress reduction techniques like meditation and nature exposure, but here’s one more: breathing. There are actually a bunch of studies showing that specific breathing techniques can have an immediate and lasting effect on the stress response.
Slow breathing is exactly what it sounds like. A lot of studies use 6 breaths/minute, which would be 1 breath every 10 seconds (just count to 10 slowly as you breathe).
In 60 young men, this study found that daily slow breathing exercises (but not fast breathing exercises) increased activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” mode) and decreased activation of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” mode).
This study studied the use of a rest period after breathing out. Basically, they got subjects to wait a bit after breathing out before they breathed back in again. Using that technique to slow down their pace, the subjects focused on breathing at 6 breaths per minute for 6 minutes. This lowered the participants’ heart rate and improved their heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is a huge sign of autonomic function, so improving heart rate variability is basically a sign that the subjects were a lot less stressed out.
Diaphragmatic breathing, aka belly breathing, is a little more complicated than just slow breathing because it’s specifically focused on how you move your diaphragm, the muscle that sits just below your lungs. Technically, all breathing is diaphragmatic breathing because you have to move your diaphragm to breathe. But there’s a special thing called “diaphragmatic breathing” where the idea is basically to focus on breathing into the belly by moving the diaphragm instead of breathing into the chest. This page from the Cleveland Clinic has instructions:
“Lie on your back on a flat surface or in bed, with your knees bent and your head supported…Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage. This will allow you to feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out against your hand. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
Tighten your stomach muscles, letting them fall inward as you exhale through pursed lips…The hand on your upper chest must remain as still as possible.”
You can also do it sitting in a chair; it’s just easier to feel your stomach and chest moving while lying on your back.
A bunch of studies have looked at the power of diaphragmatic breathing to reduce stress and encourage parasympathetic nervous system engagement…and then some!
- In this study, researchers took 16 athletes just after they’d done a hard workout. They had 8 of them sit quietly and rest (the control group) and 8 of them focus on diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragmatic breathing group had significantly lower markers of oxidative stress afterwards, indicating that they were recovering from the stress of their workout better.
- This study is relevant to anyone who’s ever eaten a huge meal and regretted it afterwards. The researchers found that 40 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing reduced blood sugar, heart rate, and oxidative stress in cyclists after a 900-calorie breakfast (80% carbs, 10% protein, 10% fat). So if you’re going to eat an enormous high-carb meal, some breathing exercises afterwards can actually really help.
- In this study, people either read or did yoga breathing exercises for 20 minutes. Starting around 15 minutes in, the breathing group had measurably lower levels of some stress hormones in their saliva. So deliberate breathing exercises were a lot better than just sitting still and reading quietly.
Some other studies have also skipped right past measuring stress per se and focused on the consequences of stress instead. For example, stress reduces blood sugar control, so stress management ought to help people control their blood sugar better. And in fact, that’s exactly what it does. In this study, patients with Type 2 diabetes did a “stress management program” that was basically 10 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing and 15 minutes of muscle relaxation every day. After 8 weeks, the intervention group had significantly better blood sugar control. This study found similar benefits.
Short-Term and Long-Term Benefits
If you look at the studies above, you’ll notice that some of them were very short-term (make the subjects stressed, have them do breathing, and see if it starts helping right away) and some were long-term (have the subjects do breathing every day for 3 months and see if it works). Both techniques work: breathing exercises help right away, but long-term consistent breathing practice helps address ongoing stress.
Summing it Up
You don’t need to be a master meditator or have any special equipment to start getting proactive about chronic stress. Yes, it does have some dangerous physical effects, but something as simple as breathing can help to at least reduce the damage.
Slow breathing, paused breathing, and diaphragmatic/belly breathing all have some evidence showing that they help reduce stress – and the consequences of stress, like high blood sugar. All it takes is your own body, and you can do it almost anywhere. So next time you end up on a stressful plane ride, at work on an impossibly busy day, trapped in traffic…give it a try.