Can you overcome stress with the power of breathing?

by Nicky Pellegrino / 08 September, 2017

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Sarah Laurie.

If we can control the mechanical way we respond to stress, we could reduce anxiety.

Nobody wants to be stressed, anxious or depressed. And yet with all the science we have at our fingertips, all the experts coming at the problem from their different angles, it seems we are no better at preventing it.

That’s what author and life coach Sarah Laurie realised after a decade of working with corporates, training staff and speaking about wellness at conferences.

“Two years ago, I spoke to 350 corporate lawyers and afterwards a guy came up and told me that they needed this information so much because every person in the room knew someone who had ended their life because of stress. I pictured those 350 faces and thought, what the hell are we missing?” she recalls.

In a bid to find out, Laurie went on a research journey that took her to the lab of University of California neuroscientist Daniela Kaufer, whose work is focused on stress and the brain. She even watched an awake brain surgery, a procedure performed with the patient awake but sedated. Finally, she concluded what was needed was a way to switch off the stress response – the fight-or-flight mechanism once so crucial to our survival but mostly unhelpful in modern times – and that rather than focusing purely on our emotions, we should consider what is physically going on in our brains.

Laurie is now convinced a key to controlling anxiety and preventing a lot of depression is to change the way we are breathing. When we’re under pressure, we freeze and hold our breath. Under prolonged pressure, we start to chest-breathe at a faster rate. That’s what readies us for action, says Laurie, but it also switches off the executive-functioning part of the brain linked to coping, problem-solving and memory.

A healthy, calm breath comes from the stomach and through the nose. The trouble is most of us aren’t doing that habitually. And by constantly chest-breathing, we’re telling our brain we’re stressed, putting it in flight-or-fight mode, and not giving it the chance to process things properly.

Laurie has seen the effect addressing her own disordered breathing has had on her state of mind. “If I look at what happened last year – my marriage nearly ended and my husband had a heart attack,” she says. “They were really hard things, but I coped. I was surprised at myself.”

She has had to retrain herself to breathe properly, and at first she struggled. Now, she doesn’t get out of bed in the morning until she has done 10 really good stomach breaths. And she sets an alarm to check in with herself every 90 minutes to make sure she is still breathing properly.

Breathing expert Tania Clifton-Smith.

“If we look at babies or animals, they breathe into their stomachs,” she says. “Meanwhile, adult humans are running round this world breathing into our chests and panicking everywhere we go, and we shouldn’t be. You can’t think well when you’re thoracic breathing over time.”

Life is unlikely to get less stressful, Laurie says, but if we can control the mechanical way we respond to that stress, we may be able to reduce anxiety and thus prevent depression.

Tania Clifton-Smith, of Auckland’s Breathing Works clinic, has trained 200 physiotherapists in the Bradcliff Method she co-developed. This helps people use their breath to find a baseline calm state that can form a foundation for resilience in the face of everyday stress.

However, breathing properly – through the nose and from the stomach – is not as simple as it might sound, cautions Clifton-Smith. Some people have been doing it wrongly for so long, their physiology is set to that and they have to be weaned off.

“We need to reteach the body what it’s like to be at rest,” she says.

Whether you’re under stress on the farm or at your desk, Clifton-Smith’s advice is to regularly take a few moments to check in with yourself. “In the Western world, we don’t check in with our bodies, we check in with our minds,” she says. “What I’m trying to teach people is to pause and think about the physical body first – the feet; the legs, which are often tense; the pelvis and mid-chest. Then breathe out. The exhale is letting go physically and sends a message to the whole body.”

Once you’re breathing calmly, you can check in with your mind, and if you’re feeling under pressure, you are more likely to have the clarity to prioritise tasks, to catch those feelings of anxiety and decide what to do before problem-solving seems insurmountable.

For more on depression, anxiety and how job culture is changing to beat them, pick up a copy of the 'Work Blues' issue of the New Zealand Listener.

This excerpt was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the Listener. 

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