With life moving at a faster pace than ever, many people have difficulty relaxing. The inability to unwind often leads to differing physical effects. While some people experience a build-up of tension in the arms, shoulders, or back, others feel the effects of stress in the neck, throat, or stomach. Some people grind their teeth, feel tension in their eyes, or suffer from headaches, but almost everyone experiences reduced energy or downright fatigue as a result of built-up stress. Whether stress targets the shoulders or stomach, controlled breathing can help ease symptoms.
Breathing is an automatic body function regulated by the brain's respiratory center. In the act of breathing, the body takes in oxygen and expels carbon dioxide with movement from the lungs. The diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs control lung movement.
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When people have trouble relaxing muscles and stress builds up, the body goes into 'fight-or-flight' response and breathing changes. Breathing often becomes shallow, and people breathe from the chest rather than the diaphragm. Shallow breathing can upset the balance of gases in the body, prolong feelings of anxiety, and exacerbate physical symptoms of stress. Fortunately, people have the ability to change their breathing. Research shows that breath control helps with stress management and with stress-related conditions.
Controlled Abdominal Breathing
While there are varying breathing techniques to promote relaxation, the goal is to move from breathing with the upper chest to breathing with the abdomen. To do this, find a quiet place free of disturbances for 10 to 20 minutes. Sit comfortably with feet flat on the floor, and sit tall to help expand the chest. Place one hand on the chest and the other on the abdomen, and breathe in deeply through the nose. When breathing from the diaphragm, the chest and abdomen should be still. Take slow, even breaths for 10 to 20 minutes, and envision the tension in various areas of the body beginning to relax.
Additional Benefits of Controlled Breathing
In addition to easing stress for people who have difficulty relaxing, controlled breathing offers even more health benefits:
- Lowers levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream
- Promotes a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream
- Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- Reduces the build-up of lactic acid in muscles
- Improves the function of the immune system
- Boosts energy
People interested in more ways to incorporate controlled breathing into their lifestyle can look into yoga, tai chi, and meditation.