Breathing and Stress

I am sure a lot of you would have heard of the age-old adage

“Whenever you’re angry or stressed, take a deep breath, count from 1 to 10 and then release”

But I am not sure you followed it. I was skeptical of the same, mostly because I could not conceptualize a relationship between breathing (a physiological action) and stress or anger (a psychological reaction). However, a few days back, I came across a calming technique known as the “SEAL square rule”, employed by (obviously) the Navy SEALS to counter stress, anxiety and anger on the battlefield.

The rule is simple

  1. Inhale for 4 seconds, make sure that your diaphragm and belly swell up as you take in air
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  3. Exhale slowly, releasing your breath in 4 seconds
  4. Again, hold your breath for 4 seconds and then inhale again

For easy remembrance, it can be represented by the diagram here

Seal Square rule

Now, I don’t claim to be a stressful individual, but I do get my share of anxious moments and in one of those I decided to try this out. After trying the SEAL square rule for a few times, I could sense myself being slightly more “calm” than before. Emboldened by my finding, I tried it a couple more times – even after exiting the gym with an elevated heartrate, and I could find myself become relaxed EVERY TIME!

Clearly, there is a connection between breathing and stress levels that you don’t learn in high school, so I went around and did some research. The respiratory pattern in humans and most mammals is controlled by a part of the brain called the Hypothalamus – which, incidentally, is also closely related with the release of hormones in the body. Research has linked “voluntary breathing” – controlled inhalation and exhalation – to lowering of cortisol levels in the body (Ref here). Cortisol is the hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress – which leads to elevated heart rates and increased metabolism. Controlling Cortisol levels, therefore, reduces the symptoms of stress.

Breathing is one of the most vital and important bodily functions – so much so that it is carried out involuntarily. Our breathing patterns, often overlooked, play an important role in our mental well – being. While it may not be possible to control breathing the entire day, simply taking a minute or two to focus on a controlled form of breathing – timed inhalation and exhalation – can improve mental health. This has an added benefit while doing strenuous physical activities, such as running or weightlifting. While fatigued, it is only natural for the body to revert to a “mouth – breathing” state, where you take in large amounts of air through your mouth, filling up your belly along with your lungs – which is an extremely ineffective usage of the diaphragm. In such situations, I have benefited enormously by simply forcing breaths through the nose, so that the diaphragm is utilized completely to fill up your lungs, and no air goes to the stomach (where it is of no use).

PS – I am sure the guy in the above image is from the “jealous girlfriend” meme

PPS – In the two months since I have written this article, I have been using the “deep, controlled breathing” method while to fall asleep more quickly. I generally don’t fall asleep easily unless I am tired, but this technique has worked every time, without fail.

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