What is stress? Stress is a natural response to a real or perceived (not real) danger (a stressor); the brain does not distinguish the difference between real and perceived danger, it reacts. The stress response is our natural primitive survival signal – “fight or flight” mechanism. It is automatic; there is nothing for you to do to stop the signals. Your brain perceives the danger and initiates the cascade of events in your body. Your sympathetic nervous system is triggered and the following reactions occur. Your:
- Respiratory rate (speed of breathing) increases in order to increase the level of oxygen in your blood stream
- Heart rate increases to pump more blood to vital organs and essential muscles
- Blood pressure increases so there is an increase in blood circulation and an increase energy is made available
- Blood flow shifts to vital organs (brain, heart, lungs) and essential muscle groups needed to either escape or fight back
- Blood flow is decreased or sacrificed to kidneys, intestines and smaller muscle groups
- Digestion in stomach and movement of the bowels are slowed – so you don’t have to find food or a bathroom as you are escaping or fighting!
- Bladder sphincter constricts (tightens) – so you don’t have the urge to urinate (pee) either (that’s a good thing!)
- Eyes dilate (pupils get larger) so you can see better
- Special stress hormones (chemicals) are released, like adrenalin, cortisol, glycogen to name a few that help create energy and strength
Over the short term, these reactions are positive and beneficial to our survival. Over the long haul or frequent occurrences, this can cause more harm than good.
So if the response to stress is automatic…how do you turn it off to prevent the long term effects? Simple…learn to breathe! Well we all breathe or else we die…but how you breathe can be a useful tool to turn off the stress trigger. It is a technique that needs to be learned and practiced often before it becomes natural; a valued part of your toolbox to use in times of stress or pain.
I have been using relaxation breathing for over 10 years now. It felt a bit abnormal at first, I had to concentrate on the steps BUT my efforts paid off. Now I can do it in an instant. It is the very first thing that I teach others living with pain when I am coaching them. Relaxation breathing is the beginning of each and every other technique like guided imagery, meditation or therapeutic interventions like foot massage or therapeutic touch.
There are 3 components to relaxation breathing:
- Breathe In: through the nose and out through the mouth. Learn to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth through pursed lips (like you are going to whistle). Try this for a few breaths. TIP: If you cannot breathe through your nose taking a breath in through your open mouth and out through pursed lips is a good alternative.
- Next: Balloon your belly. As you breathe in pretend you have a balloon in your belly. Now try to blow up that balloon, allowing your belly to inflate—fill the balloon as you take in a breath (inhale). Then as you breathe out (exhale), deflate your balloon belly. TIP: when you are first practicing, lay down as flat as you comfortably can and place your hand on your belly so you can feel the rise and fall of your belly with each breath cycle.
- Final step: Concentrate on your speed of breathing. Make your breaths as slow as you can possibly manage. Make the breathing out (exhale) about two times as long as breathing in (inhale). If you find yourself feeling dizzy, or numb and tingling around lips or your fingers you are breathing too fast…slow it down considerably. TIP: Lay your hands on your thighs, palms down. Now like you are playing a piano, breath in slowly and tap the fingers of one hand one at a time slowly 1-2-3-4-5; Now breathe out tapping your fingers one at a time slowly 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. TIP: the slower you breathe the most relaxation response you will experience. TIP: Do not force the breath out…just let it go and let it flow.
Practice relaxation breathing 3-4 times a day for 10 cycles each. Best time to practice? Practice when you first wake up in the morning before getting out of bed. Other times are when you are watching TV and commercial comes on…mute the TV and do your relaxation breathing practice, and finally when you go to bed at night just before you fall asleep.
Many people with pain, including myself, find that the relaxation breathing is invaluable. It is portable, can be used anywhere at any time and no equipment is needed. I have taken blood pressures before and after someone doing their first round of relaxation breathing. It is amazing but there is always a fall in blood pressure and pulse sometime by 10 – 20 points. What I find most amazing, is how many are surprised that their pain perception drops too. For example, I worked with a gentleman whose pain level went from 9/10 down to 2/10 in 15 minutes. He had diabetic neuropathy in hands and feet along with pain after stroke in his right arm and leg. He was a happy camper to learn that he could do this so easily. And he reported back to me that this technique also helped him to fall asleep at night.
Try it. Let me know your experiences with breathing in relief and breathing out stress.