STRESS REDUCTION Learning to be confident and relaxed in the face of everyday stress.
The basic point of this note is this: as soon as we become anxious the body reflects and expresses this…. in two main ways – 1. holding the breath and 2. tensing the muscles. This is the Freeze reflex which is a total survival response to threats. If Fight and Flight are impossible we get stuck in Freeze.
The next major point is that this is not just a one way traffic – the brain sending messages to body. It is a loop: the body sends messages back to the brain.
The body’s breath holding and muscular tension sends message to the brain. Imagine for an animal ..It says : “Careful. Danger of some kind. Maybe we are under attack – therefore freeze, be super alert, look for the dangers, the negatives, the threats, assume the worst, exaggerate the problems, see them before they get to us…….”
It is experienced as loss of confidence. Fear. Pessimism. Catastrophising.
Obviously, this is a perfect recipe for more anxiety: this is a vicious circle. Anxious > tense breath holding > hyper-alert > seeing threats > more anxiety etc.
This keeps a person in a state of anxiety for longer than they need to be. The logic of the circle is very powerful..
Hormonally we keep cortisol, the fear hormone circulating. And adrenaline -trying to offset fear with excitement. Anaethetising the fear. And, like any anaesthetic, it can become addictive.
But by the very same logic we have a magic answer: The logic of the circle is very powerful. This therefore gives us a marvellous opportunity to interrupt that circle and start a very powerful ‘benign circle’.
If we can achieve less physical stress – ie less bodily tension and breath holding – we can achieve less messages being sent to the brain , leading to less hyper-alertness and less anxiety > leading to less tense breath holding etc. We can escape the trap.
So the immediate solution to immediate stress is physical – to do with breath and with physical muscular tensing. This note only deal with the breathing aspect. Other posts on this website deal with both breathing and body tension.
ANSWER: The solution is not just deep breathing. Breathing in the right way is not simply about driving large amounts of air in and out of the lungs. It is open throat breathing. And then the best body language – posture when breathing.
So start with this though: It is about the state of the muscles of the throat.
This is because the actual holding of the breath is not done by chest or lung muscles; it is done by closing the throat.
This may sound surprising but it is very easy to check. Right now – as you read this. Breathe in. Hold the breath for a moment and then release the breath sharply and watch which bit of the body is mainly involved. It is the epiglottis and the vocal chords. You may need to do this several times before it is clear. Make a noise and it is more obvious. The chest moves but the control comes from the throat.
The fact that the vocal chords are involved is fairly clear from the fact that in certain stressful situation we speak with a higher pitched voice, or even lose our voice entirely.
Fear tends to make us squeak with alarm or panic. People also squeak with indignation – a frightened, controlled anger. Awe – where we gasp and whisper in a hoarse tone? People suffering from stifled grief sometimes suffer from the ‘fish bone in the throat’ feeling – which is muscles in the throat in spasm.
Now consider the opposite – the moment when the throat is opened. Laughing, crying openly, howling, shouting in a confident way (strong anger), singing for joy. Saying ‘phew’. These are all situation of uninhibited emotion expression.
Possible exercises to try – anytime – in fact right now as you read this!
1. Pretending to steam up a mirror. Hold up your hand in front of your mouth and pretend it is a mirror that you want to steam up. That opens the throat very well. This can usefully turn into a Yawn.
2. Breathing very slowly and as silently as possible with the mouth wide open.
3. Breathe out fully. Then breathe out some more. There is always more to come. Then some More! And More! It is quite surprising – and it can perhaps make us realise how the bottom of the lungs are never fully used. I like to think that I am expelling old stale air that’s been there for weeks!
Then hold it there – throat open, lungs empty. Peaceful. Strange.
4. Pretending to smoke a cigarette. Breathe in deep, then breathe out – slowly, luxuriantly, savouring the moment. I suspect half of the pleasure of smoking comes from this enforced or encouraged good breathing. The use of nicotine is a sad, ironic poison and an unnecessary addition. Using this technique, we can get the benefit without the poison.
5. It can help to cover the mouth. Pressing something to the lips. Covering the face as in prayer or extreme emotion. Being under a cover.
6. Counting the breaths. Or focussing really hard on the throat and the movement of air.
7. One you cannot do in public : Experiment with different sounds as you breathe out – A, E, I, O, U, – the classic ‘Om’. Watch how the throat changes with the different noises.
I find the best are: AAAAH (in) then HAAAAA (out). You can do them silently.
Belly breathing –v- Chest breathing.
There is another aspect of holding back the breath: The seven exercises or techniques mentioned above focus on opening the throat on the outbreath – but one aspect of tension is that stressed breathing becomes shallow and confined to the top of the lungs.
A closed throat goes with upper chest breathing. What is needed is to open the throat and then also breathe with the belly and then the chest. Breathe in – extend the stomach. What is happening is that the diaphragm is drawing down.
So, like many people writing about this subject, I have emphasised the benefits of the out-breath. If you want to check it out, technically speaking this is called “the parasympathetic nervous system” trigger and it brings somebody out of the freeze, flight, flight mode into what is sometimes described as the “rest and digest “state.
Most people agree that this is indeed effective in heading off anxiety and panic, but I have been hearing therapy clients who tell me that their main problem is the in-breath. They say that to try and breathe in fully is hard or even actually painful.
In the literature the in-breath – (again check it out as being the “sympathetic nervous system trigger”) – you may see it wrongly identified simply with fight and flight. This is because it can be simply associated with the sharp intake of breath caused by an acute stress and then the state of having the held breath as described above.
But this is not the only form of in-breath. A calmer, fuller in-breath which is followed by a calm out-breath is in fact a source of strength and confidence. The readiness and ability to act but not the anxiety state created by the shallow breathing.
Accordingly, with myself and with clients, I have been exploring and encouraging the fuller in-breath; first to the belly and then to the upper chest. Personally I can certainly feel a form of resistance this causes in me, as if it requires courage simply to take my full space, take my full oxygen, and the associated body language of standing up taller and prouder.
In fact, in live sessions I encourage people to do some acting out, almost some drama therapy: first of adopting a rather anxious, collapsed position: shoulders up round the ears and hunched forward a bit, teeth clenched. (Basically the typical position at a keyboard – so that shouldn’t be too difficult …. Maybe where you are right now, reading this?!)
Maybe exaggerate this and from that position, take a good full in-breath to the belly and then the chest. You may find that automatically that makes you stand – or even sit – tall and proud. And then the out-breath causes the shoulders to drop and a sense of relaxation to come over you.
Try that now, as you read this? Dare to breathe in – then to breathe out fully?
You then have the apparently paradoxical but in fact perfectly sensible balance of confidence and relaxation.
For some people, their strong exercise – running or gym – causes them to breathe fully and contributes to the runner’s high. But they may then return to their desks and their collapsed body language. Would it be good to get that benefit all day – just by breathing more fully?
I feel that my previous habit of simply focusing on the out-breath while remaining in a state of anxiety can cause a form of collapse into simple vulnerability. That may in fact be a necessary therapeutic transitional stage (which I can discuss another time or you can look at the website) but it is not necessarily where we want to be every day.
By working with the fuller in-breath I have found new confidence and avoided some of those paralysed, prevaricating states.
I will be very interested to hear any feedback on this if people wanted to try it. Please don’t just say it is “interesting”. Please tell me you have tried it and it works!
It may be good to think: “As I breathe in I am daring to breathe in. I am breathing in courage and confidence and strength. I have the right to be here.”
” When I breathe out I am daring to relax, to come out of emergency mode. I am safe.”
And it’s free and legal and healthy.