HOW BREATHING CAN HELP YOU TO CONTROL STRESS
Updated: Sep 15
Unless you’re out of breath, you probably don’t often give breathing a second thought. However, research is increasingly suggesting that you might want to try. In fact, it could make a world of difference to your health, especially if you suffer from chronic illness and/or pain. To understand why, let’s first talk about the two different types of breathing.
Types of breathing and what they mean
Regular breathing relies mostly on the diaphragm, the muscle that sits between your lower chest and stomach. During your natural fight-or-flight stress response, though, you breathe into your upper chest instead.
If you suffer from chronic stress or anxiety, perhaps due to illness or other difficult circumstances, your body can end up ‘stuck’ in this stress response. You might start to favour upper chest breathing without even realising, which can cause muscle tension, pain and headaches. If you’re already battling chronic pain, this can be especially harmful.
How do you breathe?
Without consciously changing anything, take a moment right now to observe the way you breathe. If your abdomen rises, you’re breathing into your diaphragm, but if your upper chest rises, you’re breathing into your chest.
Over the next few days, get into the habit of stopping every so often and consciously checking in on your breathing. Do you notice any changes depending on the situation? For example, do you notice yourself chest-breathing when you’re having a pain flare-up, when you’re feeling anxious, or when it’s rainy outside?
How to breathe easier
Now that you have a better understanding of your breathing patterns, you can use conscious breathing exercises to control your breathing and manage stress, anxiety and pain. Let’s talk about how this works…
Your stress response is controlled by your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates involuntary processes like heart rate, blood pressure and – you guessed it! – breathing.
The ANS has two ‘modes’. ‘Stress’ mode corresponds to upper chest breathing, while ‘normal’ mode corresponds to diaphragmatic breathing. When you notice that you’re breathing in upper chest mode, or ‘stress’ mode, you can consciously change your breathing to pull your ANS back into ‘normal’ mode.
Simply by shifting to diaphragmatic breathing, you can subdue the fight-or-flight response, regulate your heart rate and blood pressure, and relieve tension in the muscles. Your oxygen circulation will also improve, which may be helpful if you suffer from chronic pain.
Here’s a breathing exercise to try when you feel yourself drifting into stress mode.
Breathe, AKA the 4-4-6 method
In the Weather Flare app, you’ll find an exercise called Breathe, which uses a method called ‘4-4-6’. Also known as box breathing, this method is based on conscious, diaphragmatic breathing for stress and anxiety relief.
Fire up the app and we’ll talk you through it step by step!
Find a comfortable, quiet spot and sit up straight.
Let your hands relax in your lap with your palms facing up.
First, breathe in slowly through your nose for four seconds.
Next, hold that breath for another four seconds.
Finally, exhale slowly through your mouth for six seconds.
Repeat until relaxation!
The dark blue bar on the app screen will tell you what to do, and the timer in the light blue circle will tell you for how long. The exercise will guide you through three minutes of repetitions, but you can repeat the exercise for as long as you need to until you feel relaxed.
When you’ve tried Breathe, head to the comments and let us know how you got on!
P.S. We’re currently in the beta testing phase of the Weather Flare app. We’re trying to make it as helpful as possible for people with chronic conditions, so we’d love your feedback on what’s working for you and what we could improve. Download the beta Weather Flare app now on iOS and Android to get started!