Just as hyperventiation is taken by the nervous system as a sign that the body is under stress, deep diaphragmatic breathing sends a signal to the nervous system that “everything is OK – you can relax”.
When someone has a breathing pattern disorder, or habitual upper chest breathing their breathing pattern may be retrained to one that is more natural. Once someone is consciously able to instigate diaphragmatic breathing, they may use this ability to manage stress when it is occurring, and also to alleviate the effects of stress on their body after the stressor has stopped affecting them.
Breath retraining is a simple process which may be taught face-to-face or by the use of recordings. Here is a link to an mp3 which can be used to guide someone in the process of diaphragmatic breathing. (David McQuillan: CC-BY)
Using breath retraining during the event
When you are affected by a stressor, your body goes into the fight-or-flight response. One of the components of this response is an increase in breathing rate, and a move to upper-chest breathing. Sometimes this response is appropriate, but often in the modern world stressors are emotional or psychological in nature, and expending a large amount of energy over a short period of time is not an ideal response.
If you notice that you are becoming stressed, diaphragmatic breathing is a simple, effective method to reduce your stress level immediately.
Using breath retraining after the event
After a period of stress, the results of that stress are often stored in the body. We feel “on-edge”, our muscles are tightened, and our breathing pattern may be altered.
Consciously focussing on diagraphragmatic breathing acts in opposition to the stress response, helping to relieve tension (both muscular and psychological). In times of stress a regular practice (at least daily) of diaphragmatic breathing can be invaluable in reducing our stress level so that we are more able to cope with the events of the day ahead.
Breath retraining & psychological conditions
When stress has been associated with psychological symptoms (e.g. anxiety, frustration, anger, etc.) taking a few deep breaths may cause these psychological symptoms to present again. This is because the diaphragm is strongly related to ones emotional state. Often the emotions associated with stress are too intense to be processed at the time of the stressful event, or are socially inappropriate and cannot be expressed. These held emotions become emotional tension which can be released through breathwork.
In most cases this process will be beneficial, and as the emotions are released, psychological symptoms will improve over time.
When a client who has a history of psychological illness presents (including depression) it is recommended that the client's G.P. Is consulted before implementation of a breathwork programme. In some cases it may be advisable to consider working with a psychological health professional such as a counsellor or a psychologist.