Breathwork can be used as a tool to manage stress levels.

By Rachel Baker


What’s free, low effort and works instantly to help relieve stress? Your breath. It’s one of your body’s the best built-in tools, controllable at almost any time and effectively used to help calm your parasympathetic nervous system. Learning to control your breath, in other words using breathing techniques, is much more practical and less weird than you might think it is.

In your brainstem there is a cluster of neurons that specifically relays messages to and from your brain regarding your rate of breath, functioning almost as a breathing pacemaker. This cluster is called the pre-Bötzinger complex [1]and was first discovered in mice by a team working with Jack Feldman, UCLA professor of neurology, in 1991. Also referred to as pre-BötC, this complex plays an essential role in the regulation of respiration in mammals. The research since then continues to focus on the relationship between neurons, breath, emotional states and general alertness.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3209964/

The team also stumbled upon a link between the pre-Bötzinger complex and another brainstem structure, the locus coeruleus. This nucleus is involved with the physiological responses to stress and panic, as part of the reticular activating system which as a whole is responsible for regulating wakefulness and transitions between sleeping and waking. Adding the locus coeruleus to the equation helped them understand humans have a neural circuit which influences us to be anxious when we breathe quickly and to be calmer when we breathe slowly. You may have witnessed or experienced a powerful demonstration of this relationship such as hyperventilation during an anxiety attack.

To access this built-in response system, all you have to do is be intentional with your breath. Try it out and take a few deep ones. There you go, you did a breathing exercise. Of course, breathing techniques and exercises can be much more complicated than this, and are used anywhere from a doctor’s office to a religious service. Don’t worry about all the variations and complex techniques at first. Start with something basic that you can implement at any time and almost any place to help turnaround a moment of panic or stress.

The main and simplest ingredient to a calming breath is to breathe through your belly. A lot of us tend to breath higher up in our chest, letting our shoulders rise to accommodate the room for a lung full of breath. This leads to shorter breaths and more tenseness in general. To get a full, deep breath you need to let your stomach expand. To fully exhale, your belly will compress.

Try sitting or lying in a comfortable position. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to push your hand out. The hand on your chest should stay not move. Exhale through your mouth. To add emphasis to the exhale, purse your lips almost as if you were whistling. Notice how the hand on your belly sinks in as you try to push all the air out. Take your time and repeat this anywhere from a few times to 15 minutes if you want. Notice how your mind and body respond to this.

If counting calms you down and keeps you focused, try silently counting to four as you breath in. Hold your breath and count to seven. As you exhale count to eight and try to get all the air out of your lungs. Repeat this a few times until you feel calmer.

Roll breathing is something a bit more tricky. It’s easiest to learn lying on your back, but you can do it in any position. Place you hands on your chest and belly, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, making sure the hand on the chest stays still. Practice this 10 times. Now add a second step – inhale first into the upper chest and let your hand rise. On the exhale, make a quiet whooshing sound and let your hand on the belly fall first, then your hand on the chest fall second. Practice this and notice how the coordinated rising and falling movements mimic a rolling wave.

Rachel Baker rachelb@spokesman.com
(509) 459-5131
Rachel Baker joined The Spokesman-Review in 2017. As an Editorial Assistant, she inputs letters to the editor, compiles content for Today and Voice sections and composes the Education Notebook.

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