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You are a Breath Away From Calm

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

Sussanna Czeranko ND

Health Canada identifies the importance of learning how to cope with stress

in a healthy way to avoid the progression of anxiety and depression. How can

we bring a state of calm into our stressed out lives during these perilous times?

A little bit of stress is useful to help us be alert as we get our work done and

navigate through the complexities of our day. However, stress is not meant to be

the norm or so habitual that we forget how to relax and enjoy the simple

pleasures of life. Yet, we are finding that more often than not, our friends and

family are chronically stressed, burnt out and becoming vulnerable to sickness

and mental health issues.

Our bodies have an innate intelligence to heal under duress and untenable

circumstances. We may not be able to change the world around us, but we have

the ability to help our bodies choose health above the fears and anxiety that

surround us. The human response to stress or trauma is guided by our nervous

system that has a long history since our days living in the wild, running away

from predators lest we become their tasty dinner.

The secret to understanding stress and anxiety is to understand the

relationship between our breathing and our response to stress. Stress eventually

causes the part of our nervous system that is focused on survival to deal with

emergencies and be fully engaged. Stress initiates “fight and flight” responses

which change how we breathe, our heart rate and mental functions. At rest, the

breath is normally quiet and unnoticeable. However, during stress, the breath

speeds up imperceptibly and can lead to prolonged dysfunctional breathing

patterns that initiate a chain of reactions that ultimately lead to experiencing the

world through the lens of chronic anxiety and fear.

Dysfunctional breathing arising from stress has several presentations. The

breath is laboured, deep and loud; or it can be fast and imperceptible; or it can be

heard simply as sighs. Blood gases such as oxygen and chiefly carbon dioxide

determine our breathing rate and depth of breathing. They also regulate the

nervous system and energy production as well as aid our immune system. Low

carbon dioxide [or hypocapnia] levels in our blood are one of the overlooked

causes of anxiety and panic attacks.

One misconception is that the carbon dioxide that we exhale is simply a

waste gas. Nothing could be further from the truth. When carbon dioxide is lost

by excessive breathing, the body’s ability to utilize oxygen is impaired;

consequently, the tissues that rely upon the delivery of oxygen experience a

shortage, or hypoxia. In the brain, a shortage of oxygen is experienced as a

panic attack or anxiety. Just as we need oxygen to produce energy, carbon

dioxide is absolutely essential for the delivery of oxygen.

Chronic stress and the fight or flight syndrome cause changes in breathing

patterns that culminate in a state of fear, anxiety and poor health. The wisdom of

our body is the key to help harness the stress in our lives. Our breath is one of

the fastest ways of reversing and alleviating the anxiety that stress causes.

Quieting the breath helps to turn on the other branch of the nervous system,

the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings calm and makes possible the

state of rest and digestion. When we breathe quietly and slow our breath, the

parasympathetic nervous system engages calm. Another physiological aspect of

breathing is an important muscle called the diaphragm. Breathing

diaphragmatically is how we are meant to breathe and helps to activate the

parasympathetic nervous system.

We cannot, though, overlook the nose’s role in healthy breathing. Nasal

breathing warms, humidifies, and filters the air that we breathe into our lungs;

breathing with our nose ensures that we are breathing with the diaphragm.

To help regain calm during times of stress, there are several things that you

can do:

1. nasal breathing;

2. make your breathing quiet and gentle;

3. breathe with your diaphragm, and

4. be kind to yourself.

The work of Dr. Konstantin Buteyko [1924-2004] offers invaluable tools for

stress- related diseases and especially for the surge in anxiety and mental

despair that has become too familiar. The Buteyko breathing method has

several breathing exercises enabling people to use the breath to rapidly bring

calm and lower anxiety.

Take a breath and imagine that you are a baby again. Babies have an innate

intelligence when it comes to breathing. The next time you find yourself out of

breath, panicked, or anxious of the future during these times, your symptoms are

not imaginary but very real. Simply take a gentle breath with your hand on your

belly and feel the diaphragm move out as you inhale. The breath is one of our

most powerful tools to regain calm and our sense of well-being.

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