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Article written by Daniel Max, Holistic Health Counselor, Yoga Instructor, Shiatsu Practitioner, owner of Sense of Self


I think it is safe to say that in life we all have stress which we need to address. What many of us do not realize is that breathing is a major factor in controlling stress: It can either relieve it or create it.

When stressed, one tends to take a shallow breath using the upper chest muscles rather than the diaphragm. For many of us this breathing pattern has become a habit even when no stress is present. By paying closer attention, we can learn to control the depth and pace of each breath, enabling us to control our reactions to the stresses of life.

A Natural Shallow Breath:

Shallow breathing using the upper chest muscles occurs naturally when we hyperventilate. It is meant only for moments of severe stress when we need to increase the supply of oxygen in the body.

Imagine you are in the woods and you are confronted by a bear. As you spot the bear you gasp. Gasping is a shallow breath into the upper part of the lungs. This gasp stimulates the lobes of the upper lungs which activate the part of your nervous system that tells you that there is a state of emergency. In the case of the bear the body receives the message to RUN!

A Shallow Breath’s Effect On Weight:

When the body believes it is in danger, it looks for an immediate source of energy to fuel its escape. The carbohydrates we eat are the primary energy source in times of danger and stress because they are most easily converted by the body into fuel. As long as the body thinks there is a state of emergency it will crave emergency fuel in the form of simple carbohydrates and sugar (these include processed foods such as cookies, chips, breads, soda, etc). Unfortunately even though carbohydrates give a quick boost of energy, it does not last long and energy levels drop once the food has been digested. This causes cravings for yet another dose of sugar and carbohydrates to again lift up the energy levels which generates overeating, overweight, and a number of other serious ailments.

Besides creating cravings for carbohydrates, as long as the body is in “survival mode mentality” it will store as much fat as it possibly can for later use. Fat has more energy stored in it and burns more slowly than carbohydrates, supplying longer lasting energy. The body does not know how long this “state of emergency” will last so it stores as much energy as it can

While in “survival mode”, the digestive system is weakened. The body will prioritize survival rather than digest its food, therefore it will take the energy from the digestive system and supply it to the muscles for a “fight or flight” response.

As we learn to relax and breathe deeply, our digestive system will have the energy to assimilate foods and nutrients properly. Difficulty burning fat as well as difficulty gaining weight can both be symptoms of a weak digestive system.

Breathing’s Effect On Weight Through Exercise:

While exercising it is easy to find ourselves strenuously huffing and puffing. It is important to consciously watch each breath and continue to breathe as deeply as possible in order to fully oxygenate the body. If we are gasping for air while running on a treadmill, the body will perceive this no differently then if we are chased by a bear. To the body, a stressful situation is a stressful situation. Practicing “3 Part” Breathing:

Be sure to practice breathing only through the nose both on the in and exhalation.

  1. Belly (diaphragm): Lying down on your back rest your palms on your belly, just bellow the breast bone. Start to breath into the area underneath you palms, feeling the rise and fall of the belly with every breath.
  2. Mid-chest: After several breaths move your palms up to the side ribs and breathe into the hands to expand the mid-chest. Notice that your belly just below the breastbone, after initially expanding, draws slightly in and up as your mid-chest expands. Take several breaths here before moving to the next part.
  3. Upper Chest: Place your hands just beneath the collarbone. Breathe into your hands filling up till you feel the collarbone lift. Notice that breathing into this part takes the most effort of all, while drawing in less volume.

Putting It Together Into A Full Breath:

  • Inhale: From bottom to top, breathing into each of the three parts progressively. Breathing into the lower belly, rising into the mid-chest, and from there all the way up to the collarbone.
  • Exhale: Relax the diaphragm first and continue from there, relaxing from your belly, to mid-chest, to upper chest. Do not strenuously “push” the air out. Calmly release each breath so that you finish the exhalation softly and relaxed, leaving the body receptive to the next breath.

Shallow Breathing As A Cause Of Disease:

Imagine what detrimental effects we have on our bodies if our nervous system is chronically left in a state of perceived danger. With our focus on “survival” our immune and digestive systems are weakened. Our heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up and we produce more insulin and cholesterol. Our muscles become chronically tight, circulation is slowed causing a build up of toxins and for many of us, we become dependent on stimulants such as caffeine. Caffeine tricks the body into believing it can expend more energy than it is capable of, which in turn results in adrenal fatigue, leaving the body’s energy sources completely depleted.

By focusing on our breathing throughout the day, we begin to reverse all these hazardous effects and restore the body back into equilibrium.

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