Breathing and stress

Breathing is a unique mechanism that can reflect your physiological state, like when intense exercise causes us to breathe faster. It can also be manipulated to influence your physiological state, such as slowing down your breathing in order to slow down your heart rate.
Associated benefits of different breathing techniques can include relaxation, reduced hypertension, increased access to your parasympathetic nervous system, and more.
But please be aware - breathing is not that simple, it’s rather complex. Therefore, consideration should be given to the different elements of respiration - cellular, gas distribution and the mechanics of how you breathe - before deciding which breathing technique is right for you.

Let’s start with a few breathing myths, to highlight common misunderstandings about breathing.

Breathing Myths

More breaths = more O2
  • Breathing more does not directly relate to an increase in O2 in our cells – it can often do the opposite.
CO2 = waste product
  • CO2 is a bio-marker which is critical to balanced chemistry in our system, in fact too much or too little can be fatal.
Breathe deep and full
  • Taking deep full breaths that expand the belly and chest leads to an increased loss of CO2 – if you’re not using your muscles (e.g. exercising). This is unhelpful for your chemistry, and therefore your performance.
Deep breathing is the key to calming down
  • One deep breath combined with positive affirmations that help centre yourself may be helpful in reducing stress for some people, but more than one deep breath is not helpful in a crisis.
Fast breathing is bad
  • Fast breathing isn’t always bad, just like slow breathing isn’t always good – what’s really important is being able to breathe at different rates while maintaining a stable chemical axis in your system (blood pH).

Stress and your breath

When people are exposed to a stressor, their body responds in a myriad of physiological and psychological ways.

Most people notice their heart rate increases during stressful situations, causing their breathing rate, depth and mechanics (how a person shifts air in and out) to change. But what most people are unaware of is that what they are doing will determine whether these breathing changes support or disrupt the body's physiological needs.

Our bodies were designed to deal with stress through exercise.

For instance, when your muscles are working hard they use up energy and produce more CO2.

CO2 acts as a biomarker by signalling to the haemoglobin where to deliver the O2.

Breathing rate/depth also increases to shift more O2 in and CO2 out, overall contributing to good internal chemistry of your blood pH.

Alternatively, while at rest (e.g. sitting at your desk), the majority of your muscles aren’t producing CO2 because the muscles are barely moving.

An increase in breath rate, depth and/or using your mouth can force the system to dump what CO2 is available.

Decreases in CO2 (dropping below 35mmHg = hypocapnia) mess up the chemistry of our blood pH, reducing the cognitive and physical performance level of our bodies.

Therefore, when you're experiencing mental stress, you should avoid deep breathing (shifting large amounts of air with the use of chest, shoulders, and belly) because it often leads people into a hypocapnic state.

This is because the more air you breathe in, the more you’ll breathe out - including what little CO2 you have available. As noted above, if you have limited CO2 in your system the haemoglobin will continue to hold onto the O2 - reducing gas distribution.

The symptoms associated with hypocapnia can vary widely for individuals and include chest pain, dizziness, tingling hands and lips, sensitivity to noise and light, excessive sighing, muscle pain, tension, anxiety, exhaustion, impaired concentration and decision making, just to name a few. Yet many people are unaware these symptoms and signs are related to their breathing. 

The following breathing intervention can be helpful to reduce hypocapnia, especially when you're experiencing mental stress at rest (e.g. having a difficult conversation with your boss, waiting to begin your AWQ).

Breathing intervention

 When at rest but feeling challenged/stressed:

  • Breathe low into your abdomen.
  • Take small gentle breaths, just enough to move your abdomen slightly.
  • Breathe slowly.
  • Through your nose, both in and out.
  • Notice the nuances of your breathing, such as the pause at the end of the exhale.
  • It may help to imagine holding a feather under your nose, and by following the above steps you should be breathing so lightly the feather barely moves.

Breathing in this manner helps preserve your CO2 levels, enabling the haemoglobin to deliver oxygen throughout the body - therefore supporting your optimal performance levels.

Some people find this relaxing, but it does depend on the situation. For instance, the context may be so stressful that a person may never truly feel calm. If they can maintain the right blood pH balance (largely controlled by CO2) they can at least function at their best ability.

Breathing while exercising

If you're interested in learning more about breathing while exercising, check out this short video by Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage.

How to breathe during physical exercise

Learn simple breathing techniques to improve your performance during physical exercise with Patrick McKeown.

Caution: Breathing techniques and protocols

The internet is flooded with many different approaches to breathing, which propose many different health benefits.

Please note that in most situations taking control of your breathing can disrupt the body’s highly efficient respiratory system.

Even the breathing intervention outlined above may not be helpful under certain conditions for some people. This is because voluntarily manipulating your breathing can shift your CO2 levels unintentionally outside of the normal range. For instance, when measuring an individual’s CO2 levels it’s common to see their levels fall below normal when they are trying to show a breathing practitioner their ‘best’ breathing.

In light of the disruption that taking control of your breathing can cause, and the fact that most people don’t have access to a capnography instrument, it's recommended that people learn to allow their breathing to be as it needs to be.

Rather than practicing specific breathing protocols and techniques that may unwittingly change your CO2 levels, practice mindful breathing and learn to trust your body’s ability to adapt to its physiological needs.

Mindfulness Breathing Exercises - to reduce the desire to control your breathing, increase acceptance of your present experience, and avoid judging changes in your breathing/body as negative or positive.

  • While sitting up straight (but not rigid) or lying down, breathe in and out through your nose.
  • Simply observe your breathing, be aware of each inhalation and exhalation.
  • Avoid taking control and allow your breathing to be just as it is.
  • Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat, or on the movements of your belly.
  • When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.
  • Don’t judge your breath rate or depth, don’t assign good or bad words to it, just allow your breathing to be. 

Please note the above information is relevant to healthy adults. Those with pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions should consult their physician before engaging in breathing exercises.