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Stressed? Take a deep breath

Proper breathing can release tension and quiet a busy mind. Think belly, not chest.

October 24, 2005|Nadia Lerner | Stamford Advocate

Suffering from headaches, upset stomach, insomnia? No guarantee, but change the way you breathe, and it might spell "relief."

Your symptoms may be caused by stress, says Bernadette Johnson, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut. Johnson teaches a relaxation program for those facing surgery or medical treatment. Among its prime components is proper breathing, a must to release tension.

"If you make a quick change in the rate at which you breathe, you send a message to the brain, 'I am not threatened,' " Johnson says.

Our reaction to stress goes back to the caveman's fight-or-flight response, she says. Challenged by a saber-toothed cat, the caveman either ran or fought for his life. Nowadays, our threat from saber-tooths is down to zero, but we react the same way when menaced: The mind tells the body to protect itself, generating a faster heart rate and breathing. Result: anxiety, stomachaches, heart palpitations and other symptoms.

People can break the stress cycle in four easy steps, Johnson says.

* First, stop what you're doing.

* Second, breathe using your stomach (belly breathing) with a few deep breaths, allowing the gut to expand with air. Do not breathe using the chest, which most of us do normally. Johnson instructs students to count from 1 to 4 while inhaling, then to count down from 4 to 1. (She suggests inhaling through the nose and exhaling from the mouth, but you can do whatever is comfortable.)

* Third, think about the cause of your stress, deliberating its importance in the scheme of things. For example, a computer crashes and you get angry. Clearly, seething won't change or resolve the situation.

* Finally, rectify the problem with a viable solution.

Says Johnson, "When your body is relaxed, your mind will follow."

Many patients tell her the four-step approach has turned their life around. "They sleep better, have less relationship problems and irritability with co-workers."

Breathing also is an important element in mind and body regimens including yoga, meditation and Pilates. Janaki Pierson, yoga and meditation instructor at Greenwich Hospital's Integrative Medicine Program and founding director of the Woodbury Yoga Center, instructs students on the importance of belly breathing.

Says Pierson: "When you breathe slowly, smoothly and evenly, your mind cannot generate enough thoughts to support the upset, whether it's anger, frustration, fear or anxiety."

Infants, cats and dogs belly-breathe automatically, says Pierson. However, by the time children reach 8 or 10, they're usually chest breathers because of the fight-or-flight response, which depends on chest breathing for quick, short bursts of oxygen. Eventually the body gets used to shallow breathing.

"Now you have a body that perceives itself to be in stress all the time because you are breathing with your chest all the time," Pierson says. This activates the body's stress response system unnecessarily, emitting stress-related hormones.

Elaine Petrone recalls how open-mouthed breathing helped her recover from a serious leg injury that was exacerbated by illness. "I had a lot of pain ... a lot of jaw issues," Petrone says. She subsequently developed the Elaine Petrone Method of Ball Therapy, based on the study of various grass-roots therapies.

Petrone teaches this relaxation technique in the Health and Fitness Institute at Tully Health Center in Stamford, Conn. The program combines breathing with the use of rubber balls under various body parts to reduce muscle tension.

People tend to hold their breath, which tightens their muscles, Petrone says. In her program, students exhale loudly on the sounds of "s" or "h," to help tone their diaphragm.

"The diaphragm is a muscle," she says. "I focus so much on exhalation because it allows natural breathing to happen after that. Once people get that awareness, it starts turning the cycle."

Rita Trieger, editor of Fit Yoga and Fit magazines, also teaches at Tully Health Center. In meditation, especially for beginners, focusing on breathing is a way to quiet a busy mind, she says.

"Letting go of thought is the hardest thing. Meditation is to calm things down and get you to a point where you can push all that crazy, frantic thought-process, stream-of-consciousness aside."

Other techniques include alternate nostril breathing -- closing one nostril at a time and breathing out the other. "That can have a really energizing effect, comparable to a snack or nap," she says.

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