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How Is Breathing Related to Stress?

Stress comes in so many forms to the average American that we have numbed ourselves to most of its day to day effect.  Yes, breathing is related to stress but most of us aren’t sure why, how or when. For those who have experienced stress turning into anxiety or panic, you are likely familiar with the associated increase in breathing and heart rate. Even with subtle stress, breathing changes, whether the stress is perceived or real. This is our autonomic nervous system at work preparing us for fight or flight. Deep in the brainstem, the reptilian brain goes to work sending signals to the nervous system. It steps up breathing so that the mitochondria in every cell can put the increased oxygen to use creating more energy (ATP) for the muscles, brain and other systems in need of activation to fight or flee. All good — if the threat/stress is real. If not, it is an activation that just contributes more stress to an already stressed individual.

How can this cause more stress?  Breathing –specifically, over-breathing adds to one’s stress. Repetitive alarm moments or a continually hostile environment, especially during developmental years, can cause a new breathing pattern to stick around.  This is one way a breathing habit deteriorates.   For example, A child is bullied, yelled at or regularly shaken up by a peer, caretaker or parent. The child’s state of arousal becomes chronically elevated as the breathing ratchets up a notch to prepare for fight or flight.  When fairly regular (and depending on the child), at a subconscious level, this breathing pattern stays slightly elevated even when the situation settles down. ISuch life changing experience is not limited to children. The same chronically stressful environment can profoundly impact a parent’s physiology as well.

Even threatening thoughts and feelings from past or future experiences will set off neurotransmitters and hormones to change the amount of energy expended or soon to be expended based on the perceived threat.  When the body’s threat-warning signal is chronically elevated but no energy expenditure takes place, one’s physiology can get unnecessarily adjusted.  Internal chemistry somewhat adapts to these new norms, but it is less than ideal as chemical buffer systems (described in the next FAQ) move closer to the edge of physiological limits.   When one resides in a semi-anxious state and does not have good respiratory fitness, new norms are created and one result is a compromised buffer system.   Once this is the case, even small adverse conditions can throw physiology over the edge and evoke additional issues/symptoms.  Which symptoms manifest are a function of genetics and other environmental factors?  Some are prone to heart issues, others to dizziness, yet others to GI problems or asthma.  Figure 1.1 outlines the many symptoms that dysfunctional breathing can contribute to or even cause.