Guest Post by Kiernan Richardson
I’m going to start out by making a fairly controversial statement.
The effect of stress on the breathing is one of the most understudied and most under-appreciated components of health.
We all sort of know about stress and the effect it has on the body. But what we don’t know is how stress coupled with improper breathing elicits a horrendous downward snowball effect of ill-health in the body. Understanding the relationship between the stress, and the associated fight or flight response and breathing has been one of the most important pieces of information I have ever discovered on my own health journey. What I’ve discovered is that as a society, we do not know how to breathe!!!! REALLY!
We don’t know how to breathe? SAY WHAT???
Science tells us that part of our bodies response to fight or flight is to increase respiration or to hold your inhalation. Think of someone gasping in fear, they have a large inhale and hold it. Sadly this is acted out on a smaller scale throughout the day for most people. It is very common to hold your inhalation in response to stress, and when you hold your breath you get air hunger, which makes you breathe more. Because you are unaware of your breath, this all frequently happens without you noticing. Yet when people are feeling anxiety and chronic stress we encourage deep breathing exercises, that typically involve holding an inhalation. In addition, many, if not most people, compulsively mouth-breathe and hardly ever consistently breathe through their nose. Mouth breathing is a HUGE problem, but not for the reasons you think. To see why we need to take a look at the other way to breathe-through your nose.
First, the nose has 30 different functions. Yet the common belief is that the nose just filters air and lets you smell things. Far from the truth… The body was only designed to breathe through the mouth in fight or flight. Think about the need to get away from a bear! But are you constantly running from bears?
Very important processes occur when you breathe through your nose. A very important one is the flow of Nitric Oxide(NO) from the nose to lungs. NO plays a very significant role in maintaining balance in the body and is a primary bronchodilator for the lungs allowing oxygen to be used. When you breathe through the nose, you acquire this function, but not when you breathe through your mouth. Mouth breathing simulates running away from a bear, while nose breathing simulates peace and relaxation.
If the nose has 30 functions, all relating to breathing, it is obvious we should only be breathing through the nose. I consider it a human tragedy that we do not stress this importance. Our general knowledge of breathing and stress is so backward that we sometimes recommend breathing through the mouth deeply for relaxation. You are losing the vital function of the nose here, and making the fight or flight response of increased respiration worse. With this abnormal change in breathing you increase stress.
The breathing/stress vicious cycle
Incorrect breathing creates stress in the body, and stress in the body creates the fight or flight response, which is responsible for incorrect breathing! This is a vicious cycle you have not heard of before and has likely affected you multiple times today even! This creates a downward spiral of health unless it is corrected. After the body has been in chronic fight or flight for a while, it becomes more and more likely to occur, in response to smaller and smaller stressors. If you never correct your breathing after the stress response, then the breathing itself can become the stimulus for the stress, then the stress increases and breathing may get even worse. This is why sometimes when you consciously focus on breathing you feel anxious because you do not know how to breathe.
This constant fight or flight state taxes your adrenal glands, disturbs your sense of peace, makes you more irritable, lowers your immune system, and opens the way for cascading destructive processes in the body. Don’t believe me? I’d love for you to record how many times you hold your breath when you are on your phone, or at your computer terminal, or when you are in a stressful situation, especially when that situation requires multi-tasking… I bet you will find you are holding your breath a LOT!
This is one of the most important aspects of health hardly anyone has any idea about.
Every day you face many many stressors. I do not just mean the stress of your job, relationship, school, financial situation, etc. but the very serious environmental stressors as well. For instance not having your body grounded to the Earth can make it hard to get into the parasympathetic (relaxed) state. This single factor alone which I discussed in my last blog is huge. Our bodies used to touch the Earth 24/7. We know that being ungrounded means you will not have a natural stress response in the body. This is a major factor and there are countless other factors at play in our world causing us unnatural stress. One form of stress, also not well known, is the stress response that happens when our eyes digest large amounts of blue light from looking at our various screens. We all could name off multiple causes of stress but the point is If you do not know how to handle these stressors, you will have a fight or flight response from them, which is a natural reaction when the body perceives a threat, through a stress response.
So what should we do?
The critical factor in dealing with stress and avoiding the fight or flight response in the body comes from ensuring breathing does not change. Whether you are stressed at work or are simply thinking negative thoughts, the key to dealing with stress correctly lies in the breath. Science has shown long ago that when the body undergoes stress, it breathes more. So think about the opposite… When you are relaxed… You guessed it… You breathe LESS!
So the whole key here is to breathe LESS, not MORE!
You obviously need to breathe more when you workout or face an intense physical situation. When you are exposed to literally any stressor, the breath has the potential to change your nervous system, to heal and digest, to fight or flight. So when you are stressed you should breathe less, because your natural tendency will be to breathe more if you are not aware.
Think about how you breathe when you are stressed, and think about how you breathe when you are very relaxed. These are two quite different pictures. When someone is feeling extremely stressed and on the verge of a panic attack they are hyperventilating, so a common recommendation that is more in line with the truth, is to breathe in a paper bag. What this does is increase carbon dioxide in the body. It feels very good if you are hyperventilating because you are losing too much CO2. The increased respiration from fight or flight without corresponding physical action will lead to some degree of hyperventilation, even though it may feel that you don’t have enough air.
This is because carbon dioxide, NOT OXYGEN, is the main indicator that controls your automatic breathing. Without a proper ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide, your body will be in disarray also causing stress. With the low carbon dioxide from mild or severe hyperventilation or holding inhalations, your body will tell you that you need more air, even though this makes the problem much worse. You would likely find that even without having a panic attack, breathing into a paper bag may feel good for you. This is because that increased respiration rate you likely experienced when you thought about that last stressful thought, is still affecting you through your breath.
Many people are CO2 deficient because of abnormal breathing. Contrary to popular opinion, Without enough CO2, oxygen has a hard time being used. Without increasing movement, the increased respiration from anything will create hyperventilation. Many people have this increased respiration as a result of the multitudes of stressors they encounter constantly. This happens on a small enough scale throughout the day that you may have never noticed, but I assure you that you experience this regularly. That is, unless you are completely healthy physically and mentally, with absolutely no complaints. By breathing less or holding your breath on the exhale rather than inhale, you increase carbon dioxide naturally and is the absolute best way to deal with stress in whatever form you encounter it.
An experiment for you to try
Do not just take my word for it but try it yourself. The next time you are feeling stressed, instead of doing the typical protocol of deeply inhaling, try holding your breath on your exhalation. After you must breathe again take one smaller breath than you feel like you need to, through your nose. Make sure you are “belly breathing” in addition, and not breathing “through the chest.” Continue breathing this way while keeping a slight feeling of air hunger, remembering that the relaxed breath is very small and quiet. See what you feel. The latter here is a safer more effective form of doing what the paper bag breathing does and is not just for acute stress but as a response to any stress at all.
What else do I need to know?
It is important that you work on your posture. When you slouch, you can’t breathe through your diaphragm… Simply breathing through the chest and not the diaphragm will create stress in the body, because oxygen is not reaching the lower lungs. So the ideal breath is done with a straight back, using the nose, and only seeing the belly, not the chest rise. The other important thing to remember is that in response to stressful thoughts situations ect., you will have a tendency to over-breathe. This is because we do not teach what normal breathing is like, so you will likely continue to breathe as if you are in acute stress because you don’t know any better. So, in general, it is better to try and reduce the depth of your inhalations, because you likely have been breathing too deeply most of your life. If you have a pause in your breathing it should always be on the exhale, because that is simply how you breathe when you are relaxed.
Everyone knows that stress can make you sick, but the key observation is that the breath both assists with, and alleviates physical stress. You can think stressful thoughts or be involved in stressful situations without the typical known and unknown physical reactions in the body. You can escape the downward spiral of chronic stress and its corresponding negative health effects by controlling the breath. Breathing is the one function that is both automatic and controllable. Therefore it is the one tool you have to physically manipulate your autonomic nervous system for good or bad.
EMAIL APNEA – This is a real thing now!
I have been in constant observation of how people are breathing around me… Every single person I have observed around me has an automatic change in breathing when faced with some stressor. The most common thing I have seen so far is the holding of the inhalation. There is a new topic being discussed called email apnea, which essentially means holding breath because of modern stress. It is clear this is the most common change of breathing from stress today and it must be stopped if we want to really become healthy. It is vital that we recognize this and change this because we all are walking around in perpetual fight or flight. I could write hundreds of blogs on the topic of all of the stressors both direct and indirect that influence us in our modern life. There is no question we are more stressed than ever. We have the same survival focused stress our ancestors had, but paired with the fact that we now live in an alien technological world compared to the natural Earth our ancestors knew, and you have a very stressful situation for the body constantly. We are finding many components of our modern living that have disastrous known effects, but we have only begun to investigate these topics.
Our misunderstanding about the importance of the breath, paired with the physical effects of our very stressful existence here is a dangerous combination. We must not allow our breathing to be influenced by external and internal stressors, otherwise, this incorrect breathing becomes a cause of stress. We might never escape this perilous cycle unless we correct our breath. Additionally, we must make an effort to identify unnatural forms of stress; like being ungrounded, poor posture, too much multi-tasking, too many “screens” in front of our face, etc. so that we can hope to someday not be so focused on basic survival instincts, and the breath could once again become natural.
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About The Author – Kiernan Richardson, Cedar Rapids IA
Kiernan has faced a number of very serious health conditions for most of his life. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a rare form of amoebic dysentery which ultimately led to severe ulcerative colitis, and cost him his large intestine as a result. At a young age, he is not only a survivor but has decided to dedicate his life to helping others not suffer a similar fate. Kiernan believes that it is a modern lifestyle that causes our dis-ease and struggle. He aims to “re-wild” the domesticated human, in order to overcome and prevent the modern health challenges we currently face. Kiernan has spent literally 1000s of hours in research.
What Is He Up To Now?
Kiernan has hopes to obtain certifications in functional medicine coaching, corrective breathing, and marketing in order to spread his message far and wide. His website is coming, but until then, you can find him on Facebook at, https://www.facebook.com/kiernan.richardson