Breathing influences and is influenced by stress, emotions and thinking.The right sort of breathing exercises, practiced regularly, can be useful tools for increasing our ability to manage stress, calm anxiety, stabilise our mind and improve our mood.

Breathing dysfunction that comes about as a result of stress can affect our health and perpetuate vicious cycles that prevent healing and aggravate chronic illness.

How stress and mental/emotional overload affects breathing

Our thoughts, feelings and the activation of our bodies stress response influences how we breathe  [1-3]. Sometimes people who are overwhelmed by physical, mental and emotional stresses develop  different forms of dysfunctional breathing such as  hyperventilation and breathing pattern disorders.

Our breathing is partly automatic and partly voluntary. The automatic part of our breathing responds to signals from many sources including our brain and nervous system. If our brain and nervous system perceives we are under (physical or psychological) threat, these involuntary automatic processes stimulate  our breathing in preparation for imminent fight or flight.

Usually our breathing normalises when our nervous system returns to a more balanced and relaxed state. However breathing can stay overstimulated and breathing regulation can become disrupted if the fight and flight response is over activated, activated too frequently or if the body has lost the knack of dialling down the stress response.

When stress coping mechanisms are overwhelmed our habitual breathing can change so that we lose the ability to breathe appropriately for our level of activity, arousal or oxygen needs. Breathing muscles can become excessively tense and short. We might breathe irregularly, sighing frequently, feel excessively breathless or unable to take a proper deep or satisfying breath when we want it. Our carbon dioxide levels might become chronically low and we might always breathe just a little much for our body’s actual  needs.

Breathing dysfunction can then be part of what perpetuates stress states. Correcting breathing dysfunction can be an important (often overlooked) part of the work that needs to be done to calm the stress response and re-balance the nervous system.

Breathing help for anxiety, stress and depression

Breathing is a powerful tool for calming and soothing the nervous system. It has direct influences on the brain and limbic system (the emotional and memory centre of the brain) and it can influence specific types of brain activity and improve mood  [4-6].

Various types of breathing exercises can regulate and tone down the stress response. It can help people with anxiety, panic disorder and depression to greatly reduce psychological and physical symptoms. Research has shown that working with breathing in a structured and appropriately targeted way can help people who suffer from these conditions and in some cases actually increase the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic interventions [6-10].

However not all breathing techniques are equally effective. People who have breathing disruptions due to stress, anxiety or panic disorder can find putting attention on their breathing is unpleasant and attempts to  control breathing can actually make their breathing dysfunction worse[11].

These problems can be overcome with proper instruction in the correct techniques.

Individualised breathing assessment and treatment may be necessary to get the best results.

Breathing help for exhaustion and chronic fatigue

It’s long been known that breathing and relaxation therapies can help patients with medically unexplained exhaustion and chronic fatigue [12, 13]. Breathing retraining along with other types of relaxation and mind-body training can help to reduce hyperarousal of the stress response system so that the body has the opportunity to heal [14].

References

  1. Blechert, J., et al., Autonomic and respiratory characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2007. 69(9): p. 935-43.
  2. Cohen, H.D., et al., The effects of stress on components of the respiration cycle. Psychophysiology, 2007. 12(4): p. 377-380.
  3. Boiten, F.A., The effects of emotional behavior on components of the respiratory cycle. Biological Psychology, 1998. 49: p. 29-51.
  4. Zelano, C., et al., Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. J Neurosci, 2016. 36(49): p. 12448-12467.
  5. Brown, R. and P. Gerbarg, Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: part 1-neurophysiological model. J Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005. 11(1): p. 189-201.
  6. Brown, R. and P. Gerbarg, Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II–clinical applications and guidelines. J Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2005. 11(4): p. 711-7.
  7. Brown, R.P., P.L. Gerbarg, and F. Muench, Breathing Practices for Treatment of Psychiatric and Stress-Related Medical Conditions. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 2013. 36(1): p. 121-140.
  8. Meuret, A., et al., Changes in respiration mediate changes in fear of bodily sensation in panic disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2009. 43(6): p. 634-41.
  9. Davies, C.D. and M.G. Craske, Low baseline pCO 2 predicts poorer outcome from behavioral treatment: Evidence from a mixed anxiety disorders sample. Psychiatry research, 2014. 219(2): p. 311-315.
  10. Karavidas, M.K., et al., Preliminary results of an open-label study of heart rate variability biofeedback for the treatment of major depression. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 2007. 32: p. 19-30.
  11. Conrad, A., Psychophysiological effects of breathing instructions for stress management. Appl Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 2007. 32(2): p. 89-98.
  12. Lum, L.C., Hyperventilation: The tip and the iceberg. Journal of Psychomatic Research, 1975. 19: p. 375-383.
  13. Nixon, P.G., Effort syndrome: hyperventilation and reduction of anerobic threshold. Biofeedback and Self -Regulation, 1994. 19(2): p. 155-169.
  14. Ristiniemi, H., et al., Hyperventilation and exhaustion syndrome. Scand J Caring Sci, 2014. 28(4): p. 657-64.

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