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How to Use Breathing to Reduce Stress

Matt Skeffington

Matt’s primary role at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning is to make sure that our coaches and clients are consistently improving, all while operatin...

Matt’s primary role at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning is to make sure that our coaches and clients are consistently improving, all while operatin...

Nov 3 9 minutes read

Feeling stressed?

You are not alone. It's been a long 2020!

The good news is, there is an extremely powerful tool we can use to reduce our stress levels.

It can help you bring your heart-rate down, reduce overall body tension and stiffness, and help you clear your mind.

That powerful tool is your breathing. 

Yes, we can dramatically decrease our stress levels by taking a few moments to shift the way we breathe.

Did you know there is a direct link between your stress levels, your heart-rate, and your breathing rate.

When we undergo mental or physical stress, we shift to what's known as a sympathetic state. This state is also known as your fight-or-flight system and it's natural. It's your body's way of preparing to literally fight or flight by increasing your heart and breathing rates, and increasing stress hormones. 

The problem is, as stress increases, we can get stuck in this state and we cannot turn this sympathetic system off. We need the ability to shift out of a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state.

You see, stress accumulates.

Whether it is a real threat like a vicious looking dog barking at you or you experience financial, emotional, or relationship stress or anxiety -- they all add up and our body treats them the same. 

Our stress hormones stay elevated and our muscles stay active and begin to stiffen. 

This drives what is known as an extended posture.

The skeleton on the left is what is known as a neutral posture. This is where we want to be most of the time. 

The skeleton on the right is in extension where the front of the rib cage lifts up, the head protrudes forward and the pelvis tilts forward causing the lumbar spine (lower spine) to push forward and arch.

Try this. 

Take a DEEP breath in through your nose and then pause.

You will probably notice your chest rises, head tilts up and your back arches. This is extension and where most of us get stuck. We get stuck in a position of inhalation. 

This chronic state of stress and extension causes:

  • Changes in our posture 

  • Decreased flexibility 

  • Decreased aerobic endurance

  • Increased weight gain  

  • Increased respiratory and heart rate

  • Increased muscle and joint pain/stiffness

  • Increased anxiety

  • Increased tiredness

The key to negate these issues is to have the ability to switch in and out of this stressed out, sympathetic state to a more parasympathetic (rest & digest) position. 

This will not only help you relax, but also improve posture, muscle pain, flexibility and your ability to recover from exercise. 

So, what can we do to help shut off our fight-or-flight system?

Exhale.

Something really cool happens when you relax and focus on long, deep exhalation. It literally signals our brain that everything is okay and helps us relax and de-stress. 

It helps to:

  • Lower your heart rate

  • Decrease stress hormones and anxiety

  • Decrease muscle and joint pain/stiffness

  • Increase joint range-of-motion

  • Increase recovery from workouts

  • Improve your posture

These drills work almost like a relaxing massage or total-body stretch.

Bye, bye tension and stress.

Not only do you feel better with less tension, but your posture and range-of-motion starts to improve allowing you to get more out of your workouts and decrease your risk of injury!

Today we're covering 3 of our favorite exhalation tips and drills and how to do them.

Next time you're feeling stress, try one of these breathing drills out.

Enjoy!

1| Nasal breathing

Our first tip will drastically improve your stress and tension throughout day.

That tip is to simply breathe in and out through your nose throughout the day.

Nasal breathing as well as focusing on long, slow exhales has been shown to:

1. Decrease your heart and respiratory rate

Nasal breathing and exhalation is synonymous with the para-sympathetic nervous system. This is the system that helps us calm down, rest, and digest. It is our recovery and rebuild system.

On the other hand, breathing in and out of your mouth rapidly actually signals our body that it's time to fight or flight. This actually increases our heart rate and respiratory rate to increase placing stress on our hearts and bodies by making them work harder than they should. 

2. Decrease stress hormones

Just as nasal breathing and controlled exhalation signals our heart and respiratory rates to decrease, it also decreases our stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

These hormones are important during times of intensity or stress as they help us increase our heart-rate and improve or strength. 

Consistently elevate your stress hormones and see a big increase in stiffness, stress, anxiety, fatigue, and fat-gain. 

3. Decrease muscular pain and stiffness at your back, neck, chest, and shoulders

Breathing through your nose allows you to use your biggest and most efficient breathing muscle, your diaphragm. 

Breathing in through your mouth does allow for more oxygen but it also activates the breathing muscles of your neck to help get additional air in. These muscles surround your neck, shoulders, chest, and back.

Overworking these muscles with mouth breathing causes stiffness and pain which can decrease range-of-motion, change your posture, and increase your risk of injury. 

4. Improve fitness and endurance

Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth during exercise is one of the biggest components to improving your fitness and helping you see better results. 

As we covered above, mouth breathing increases your heart and respiratory rate. 

This causes you to work harder than you should. 

It causes you to fatigue quicker, use more energy, and keeps you from exercising as long and as hard as you otherwise could.

Stick to nasal breathing as long as you can during workouts. Once your breathing rate increases too much to just nasal breathe, switch to breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

2| Supine Breathing

Our supine rectangle breathing drill is fantastic for relieving stress. 

The position on your back is great for relaxing your body and getting you into a comfortable position to reduce stress.

Use this drill before and after workouts, throughout the day, and before bed.

Key Points:

  • Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on floor
  • Relax you head, neck, shoulders and arms
  • Let your low back melt into the floor and close your eyes

Here's how to breathe:

  • Take a 2-4 second easy inhale through your nose (think about the air just falling in) (keep shoulders and neck relaxed)
  • Exhale through your mouth through pursed lips as long as you can (like you're blowing through a straw). Try to get all your air out.
  • As you exhale think about your body melting more and more into the floor
  • Repeat for 10 breaths or continue for a 2-5 minute span

3| Child's Pose Breathing

Our child's pose breathing is a great way to relax, destress, and decrease stiffness around your chest, neck, and shoulders.

Use this drill before and after workouts, throughout the day, and before bed.

Key Points:

  • Starting on your hand and knees, rock your hips back as far as you can until your butt hits your heels (or as close as is comfortable) 
  • Relax your head down and reach your fingertips and arms as far forward as you can until you feel stretch through shoulders and sides
  • Keep your low back and neck relaxed

Here's how to breathe:

  • Take a 2-4 second easy inhale through your nose (think about the air just falling in) (keep shoulders and neck relaxed)
  • Exhale through your mouth through pursed lips as long as you can (like you're blowing through a straw). Try to get all your air out.
  • As you exhale think about your body melting more and more into the floor and reach finger tips forward
  • Repeat for 2 breaths and then, keeping arms straight, walk your hands to the right and complete 2 more breaths
  • Then walk hands to the left
  • Repeat sequence 2-3 times or for 2-5 minutes

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