Breath Control is Stress Control (by Rory Warnock)

Breathing is the most fundamental aspect of life, however it’s widely overlooked and often taken for granted. Maybe because it’s an unconscious action we do over 25,000 times per day. Think of breathing like eating – we need it to live, but don’t always do it well. According to James Nestor, the author of ‘Breath’, “breathing is the missing pillar of health”.

Learning to understand and control your breath can have a significant effect on your physical and mental state. Given the current climate, has there been a better time to focus on stress management? Through various breathing techniques and practices, we have the ability to improve our stress response and performance - pretty cool! If you’re looking to develop as a human and understand your full potential, the breath is a fantastic and easily accessible tool to use.

When we feel stress, we’re sympathetically driven, in a high arousal state and our nervous system is up-regulated. Therefore, to reduce this stress we need to move into the parasympathetic state, lower our arousal and down-regulate. On paper it’s simple stuff.

Studies have shown that in states of stress we make bad decisions and have poor judgment. Therefore, by controlling your state, you’ll be able to think more clearly which will help with productivity, performance and making better life choices.

In this short write up, I will address how our breath can reduce stress with:

1)      Long terms stress control strategies

2)      Short term relief strategies

When it comes to health problems, I’m passionate about taking time to understand the root cause, rather than finding a temporary solution to symptoms. That being said, life doesn’t wait for anybody, so I understand that short-term relief is often just as valuable until we are able to solve that root problem.

If we don’t address the root cause of the problem, then we’ll be using short-term fixes for the rest of our lives, rather than sorting it completely. It’s like taking a Xanax every night because you struggle to sleep, but not taking the time to understand why you are finding it hard.

Let’s get stuck into long term strategies first. Understanding and utilising our physiology is key here. The aim is to build adaptability to stress by increasing our tolerance to CO2. We stress and develop our muscles in the gym, lungs on the road and mental state through breathing practices. As we know, we need to cause short term stress to our different biological systems to promote adaptation and improvements.

Our body is wildly intelligent, every system is connected - sleep is connected to emotions, emotions are connected to breath, breath is connected to sleep and so on. Gaining control of your breath will help control your emotions along with your sleep – pretty cool!

So, what long term strategies do I recommend? 

1. Develop a functional breathing pattern

Stress affects our breathing in a number of ways:

  • It becomes faster

  • Sighing becomes more regular

  • We breathe using out mouth, it’s shallow and upper chest

The above traits are similar to that of breathing pattern disorders. We want to avoid this and promote functional breathing, by breathing like the below:

Light | Slow | Deep | Nasal | Quiet

2. Improve your CO2 tolerance

CO2 is the metabolic stress messenger. We have the ability to improve our tolerance to CO2 through breathing practices and techniques.

Here are four practices to use:

Practice 1 – The Step Up

How – Start by breathing in for 3, out for 3. In for 4, out for 4. Do this up to 10/10, then start again. You don’t have to fill the lungs completely with each breath.

Why – This works on breath control and mechanics along with building CO2 tolerance and down-regulates.

Length – 5 minutes

Practice 2 – Equal In + Equal Out

How – Inhale and exhale is the same cadence (e.g 4 in, 4 out)

Why – Improves cadence, breath control & mechanics and CO2 tolerance

Length – 5 minutes

Practice 3 – Equal In + Equal Hold + Equal Out

How – Inhale, hold and exhale is the dame cadence (eg. 4 in, 4 hold, 4 out)

Why – Improves cadence, breath control & mechanics and CO2 tolerance

Length – 5 minutes

Practice 4 - Equal In + Equal Hold + Equal Out + Equal Hold (Box Breathing)

How - Inhale, hold, exhale, hold all the dame cadence (eg. 4 in, 4 hold, 4 out)

Why – Improves cadence, breath control & mechanics and CO2 tolerance.

Length – 5 minutes

For exercise 2, 3 and 4 – I recommend starting on 4s then slowly over time, as the body adapts increase this to 5s, then 6s etc. Start with Ex 1 and play around with the other 3 when you begin to improve control and tolerance.It’s a fine balance of finding comfort in discomfort. We don’t want to stress the body too much that it becomes up-regulated, but we want to cause short term stress to promote adaptation.

The idea of these practices is to improve your ability to handle stress before it comes on, to reduce your need to use the short-term relief techniques. We want to improve our relationship with rising levels of CO2 to improve our tolerance.

What short term relief strategies do I recommend? 

There are lots of little stressors that we come across each and every day – presenting in the boardroom, trying to catch the last train, being stuck in traffic jams - so it’s just as important to have tools to fall back on in these situations where we feel overwhelmed or anxious.

When it comes to down regulating and relaxing, we want to:

Slow down the breath | Breathe soft | Use the nose & diaphragmatic

Here are two practices to use:

Practice 1 - Many small breath holds

How – Sitting or lying, take a normal inhale and normal exhale and hold the nose and breathe. Only hold it for 5s, then release and breathe normally for 10s. Do this for 2 minutes.

Why – We’re pooling nitric oxide in the nasal cavity and slightly increasing carbon dioxide which opens the airways, improves blood circulation, and allows more oxygen delivery to the cells.

Bringing your attention and awareness to your breath brings you to the present moment, therefore not thinking about the past or future. This will help keep you calm.

Length – 2 mins

Practice 2 – Breathe Light

How – Sitting or lying, breathe in for 4s and out for 6s. Follow the breath and keep your attention on it. Place your hands on your lower ribs and feel your ribs expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale.

Why – Lengthening the exhale will engage the parasympathetic state, maximise vagal tone and bring you into the present moment. This will also improve mental resilience, breathing efficiency and utilisation of the diaphragm.

Length – 5-10 minutes

To summarise, we’re able to control stress and alter our physiology to improve our tolerance to stress through short- and long-term breathing practices and techniques. Use the breath as a tool to help improve your quality of life and if I can help with anything else, just ping me a message.

Give me a wee follow on IG @Rorywarnockwellness

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