Dr. Anna Charbonneau

Therapy for people living with stress, depression, and medical conditions

How to Take Control Over Your Body's Response to Stress

by Dr. Anna Charbonneau | Tags: physical health, emotion coping

Life can be so overwhelming, it's not uncommon to feel like you're drowning in a sea of expectations with not enough energy to even begin to meet these demands.

What should you do if you're feeling like you're lost at sea? Wishing you weren't lost at sea isn't helpful. Being angry about being lost isn't helpful. Building yourself a life boat? That could actually help.

Learning to recognize and manage stress in your body is the foundation of building your lifeboat. There are at least 5 major strategies for doing this. Today I'm going to focus on one: learning to breathe properly.

Want to feel better? Breathe better.

A few years ago, I was working along side medical doctors and colleagues in a primary care clinic. I was seeing a woman who was depressed and struggling to cope; her situation was made worse by her chronic sciatic nerve pain, which was radiating down her leg. Medications were not providing much relief. She came to me looking for solutions.

We had been practicing deep breathing and visualizations for a few sessions. The fourth session was right after her appointment with her medical doc. In my office, she admitted me she was feeling completely defeated that day. In addition to everything else, her blood pressure was on the rise. Her pain was awful, her family was putting a lot of demands on her, and she had been trying to manage working at her job on top of that. "I need this today," she said, "I am feeling totally lost."

We spoke for a few minutes about goals, and then I guided her through a 20-minute session of diaphragmatic breathing and visualization. I could actually see her body relaxing. At the end, I called her nurse back into my office. We took her blood pressure. In just 20 minutes, her blood pressure had dropped 10 points. She noted her pain was also relieved; not gone, but feeling much more manageable.

The nurse had one word for us. "Wow."

Wow is right. It sounds simple, and it is. But we often overlook the simple things. If you're feeling like you need solid ground beneath your feet, start with breathing.

Why breathing is so powerful.

The diaphragm is a muscle that rests underneath your lungs. When you breathe in and out using that diaphragm muscle, it stimulates a really important nerve in your body called the vagus nerve. When you breathe slowly and deeply, the vagus sends out a big CALM DOWN signal to your brain.

This calm down signal is called the relaxation response. When this relaxation response is turned on a few things happen:

  • Your heart rate slows a bit
  • Your blood pressure drops a bit
  • Your muscles start to relax
  • Blood circulation improves

Calm body leads to calm mind. Calm mind leads to less stress. Breathing properly is a way you can get back into the driver's seat of your own life.

Any type of breathing exercise that engages the diaphram muscle of your lungs will stimulate this calming reflex in your brain.

This type of breathing is the foundation of most types of meditation. With meditation, people often add techniques like counting, visualization, affirmations, or repeating words or phrases. Each of those add-ons can be helpful, but while you're learning, stick to the foundation.

How to breathe properly.

One of the best techniques for breathing properly is called Diaphragmatic Breathing (say it like die-uh-frag-ma-tic breathing). Sometimes it's also called Belly Breathing or Deep Breathing.

3 Steps to Breathing for Relaxation

  1. Get comfortable. * Especially when you're first learning, give yourself a few minutes alone in a comfortable position. * Easiest to do when lying down or reclining.

  2. Breathe in. Your bellybutton moves away from your spine. * When you inhale, use your diaphragm muscle. The diaphram will contract and pull air into your lungs. When it contracts, it will end up pushing down gently into your abdomen and your bellybutton will move away from your spine. * When you're learning, breathe in slowly and in a relaxed way. Try not to push anything. Be gentle with yourself, you will get the hang of it. * You can rest one hand gently on your abdomen and as you breathe in, your hand should move up. * The bottom of your lungs should fill first. Then your chest should expand towards the end of the breath.

  3. Breathe out. Your bellybutton falls back toward your spine. * When you exhale, let your diaphram muscle relax. As it relaxes, let it push the air out of your lungs. Make it a long, slow exhale. * As you exhale, you can imagine all of the stress or bad feelings leaving your body with your breath.

How to Practice: Tips for Building the Habit of Breathing for Relaxation

Learning to breathe properly is part of building yourself a lifeboat to get help you navigate through stressful times. Regular practice is about maintaining that boat.

  1. Start small. * Start with 5-10 breaths at a time. * You can slowly increase to 5 minutes of practice.
  2. Attach your breathing practice to another daily habit. * This is called making a "key." A key is something you do regularly. Do you regularly brush your teeth, make your lunch ahead of time, open your car door? What is a habit you already have? Decide to practice breathing before or after, and remind yourself. Soon enough, practicing proper breathing will be a new part of your routine. * Practice 5 deep breaths when you turn off your car, or after you brush your teeth, or when you put on your shoes.
  3. Practice regularly. * This works best when you do it at least once a day. * If you practice every day, it's going to work better and better. * Regular practice will make sure you have it when you need it the most.

Breathing properly can help you feel better at any stage of your life, no matter how well or poorly you're feeling. Practicing regularly will ensure that you have this strategy down pat when you need it. Trying to learn how to swim when you're in the middle of drowning is not easy. Learn and practice strategies now so that you have them when you really need them.

Want more?

I am working on developing a book and an online course designed to take you step-by-step through building strategies to manage stress and feel better. Join the list to get updates and special discounts as soon as they come out!

Science Corner

  • Read more about Herbert Benson, the doctor who coined the term "relaxation response" here.

  • Both meditation and relaxation are effective in reducing stress (Read the science).

  • Relaxation training improves anxiety (and reflex times!) in older adults (Read the science)