Stress and Breathing
My students just finished their last final exam last week. As a college instructor, I see what acute stress looks like quite regularly. Recently, one of my students asked me what I thought was the most important treatment I offer my patients suffering from chronic pain. It was a really good question. I sat with the question for a moment and answered, “breathing”. The student stared back at me quizzically. “Breathing”, she said. “That is the most important thing you prescribe to your patients?”.
I added that I think I could help nearly all my patients suffering from any chronic malady by just teaching them to breathe. Since providing my student with this answer, I have gone on to think more about breathing and its simple yet powerful effect on health.
Getting back to stress for a minute: In the 1930’s a physiologist at Harvard Medical school – Walter Cannon, began to document changes that happened in animals and then in people when they experienced a stressful situation. When faced with a significant threat or fear, blood will be diverted towards the core, pupils dilate, blood pressure and heart rate increase, muscles tense, etc. Cannon, called this response “Fight or Flight” to mean that in a stressful situation, we prepare to fight or run for our lives!
Decades later, Hans Selye discovered that the stress response caused the cerebral cortex (outer part of brain) to send a signal to the hypothalamus (small part of brain in the middle) which in turn signaled the sympathetic nervous system to cause the body to prepare to Fight or Flight. Selye also discovered that these same changes such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, increased muscle tension, pupils dilating, etc could be created by merely imagining a stressful scene.
Today, more and more people describe themselves as being “stressed”. A recent survey found that nearly half of all Americans are concerned about their levels of stress. The irony is that most people who have their basic needs met: food, clothing, and shelter, rarely have actual life-threatening events which could account for the stress response. Much of our stress, in other words, is intangible and imagined; yet, our bodies don’t know the difference between running from a saber toothed tiger or fretting about making sure we have purchased the best gifts for Christmas.
How about this image:
How would you feel if it was you stepping to the mic in front of hundreds or thousands of people? There is really nothing that can come from this that should threaten your life, yet, our body jumps into a stress response.
Stress kills. This statement cannot be made more simply and it cannot be over-emphasized. Did you know that one in three adults in North America has high blood pressure? Did you also know that 90-95% of the cases of high blood pressure are of an unknown cause? You surely know that high blood pressure is very much related to heart attacks and strokes.
Since the medical source of high blood pressure is unknown, I would like to suggest that stress likely has a major role to play in high blood pressure. Did you know that several studies on meditation have shown that regularly practicing meditation for 15-20 minutes per day can significantly reduce blood pressure! This is a scientific fact: meditation reduced blood pressure.
So, as we enter the time of the year which most North Americans describe as the most “stressful time of the year”, ask yourself, “is the stress real or imagined”. Either way, your body does not know the difference. If you describe yourself as being stressed or have high blood pressure or both, what more do you need to hear before you start meditating?
Back to Breathing: Yes, breathing is vital (no kidding!). A major aspect of all forms of meditation is breathing. The mere act of intentionally slowing your breathing down and being mindful of your breathing not only decreases blood pressure and decreases stress but it improves oxygenation to tissues and it has been scientifically shown to help with depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Most of my patients with chronic pain have found dramatic improvements in their symptoms with this one simple, focused act.