Control your breathing, control your stress

We can survive for several weeks without food. We can, at times, survive for days without water. Without air we are dead within a few minutes, so, whilst it is still free, make the most of it, take lungs full of the stuff. Dr Sheldon S. Hendle maintains that we have 75 trillion cells in our bodies, and that each one of these cells is breathing. The words 75 trillion may have little meaning to most people (that is 75,000,000,000,000,000,000), but you will appreciate that's a lot of cells to keep topped up with air.

We breathe at a normal rate of between twelve and sixteen breaths a minute. Men breathe slightly slower than women at between 12 - 14 breaths a minute. Women breathe at 14 - 16 breaths a minute. At times of stress the way that you breathe changes; your rate of breathing may increase to such a rapid level that you may start to hyperventilate. You may even find that your breathing momentarily ceases. This happens in order to give your body the chance to recover and to return to a more normal rate of breathing.

At such times of altered breathing, you will start to use only the upper portions of your lungs, resulting in your breathing becoming very rapid and shallow. This type of breathing is called hyperventilation. Panic attacks are always accompanied by hyperventilation.

The bottom of the lungs has the most blood flow - approx. 1 litre per minute. The top has approx. 0.1 of a litre per minute, ten times less than the bottom of the lungs, so it's important to get as much air down to the bottom of the lungs as we can, but we must do it in a slow, controlled way, because during rapid, shallow breathing most of the air only reaches the upper and middle parts of the lungs. Because of this altered state of breathing, the body attempts to draw even more air into the lungs. This results in much more oxygen than the body can cope with getting into the bloodstream.

As a consequence of breathing out very fast, far more carbon dioxide than usual is washed out of the bloodstream, resulting in the blood becoming slightly more alkaline. We end up with a pH. Imbalance. An imbalance in the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the blood takes place, i.e., more oxygen and less carbon dioxide. Momentarily holding your breath in response to stress will also lead quickly to a build up of carbon dioxide. This produces physical and mental symptoms as equally distressing as those caused by hyperventilation.

The anxiety and symptoms produced by these sorts of breathing triggers a vicious cycle in which our stress levels go up. Sudden changes in our breathing patterns can cause distressing effects such as dizziness, fast heartbeat, pains in the chest. These chest pains are caused by the muscles between the ribs going into painful spasm, which can make some people think that they are on the verge of a heart attack.

Feelings of panic can overcome you, anxiety levels rise, your physical and intellectual performance can be diminished, nightmares are increased, your sleep can become disturbed, you can suffer from disturbed vision, and at times may even have hallucinations. You can have sensations of unreality, the palms of your hands can sweat more than "normal". Underarm sweating can also increase.

Because of this altered state of breathing, your body has to work much harder to maintain the required level of gas exchange in the lungs. Also, remember that you have 75 trillion cells to keep going.

At such times, there can be so much oxygen in the blood that the person suffering the panic attack can faint. This gives the body the chance to stop breathing, for up to a minute, and thus give time for the gas levels in the blood to return to normal.

Whilst this can be very frightening for anyone who witnesses such an attack, the condition will start to reverse itself as soon as the sufferer regains consciousness (Young people are more susceptible to fainting)

Shallow breathing is a primitive mechanism for survival, to give us the ability for flight or flight, but in this day and age we very rarely have to stand and fight, nor do we have the opportunity to run away from any stressful situations that we find ourselves in. In fact, we don't always know what it is that we want to run away from. So we freeze...

Because of this, we don't use up the powerful chemicals Adrenaline and Noradrenalin that are released into our bloodstream, and our physical tension rises sharply.

By contrast, slow, deep breathing, using your diaphragm, uses all of your lungs. By using all of your lung capacity you get the air to the lower parts of the lungs, which are richest in blood vessels, enabling the process of expansion and ventilation to occur more efficiently.

This deep breathing helps to maintain the correct balance between the gases in the blood, whilst giving you additional oxygen. It also helps to stimulate your body to produce mood-boosting Endorphins.

Endorphins are morphine-like substances produced naturally in the body. They have a wide range of functions. They help to regulate the action of the heart. They help with the perception of pain. It is probable that they are involved in controlling emotions, mood and motivation. It is thought that they are produced at times that the body needs help in the relief of acute pain or mental distress.

Deep, slow breathing aids relaxation, reduces tension, and gives you a much greater sense of control over yourself, and a greater feeling of physical and mental well-being.

Breathe deeply

>>back to the articles page