Stress does something very powerful to our bodies. The process – known usually
as the ‘Fight or flight response’ involves a number of elements. First there is the
perception of a threat. The most obvious form of threat is a physical one –
someone runs at you in the street brandishing a knife, or being in a car accident.
But many threats are in the mind. When your boss tells you that there is going to
be some restructuring and you start to worry that you might lose your job that is
a threat as real as the man in the street with a knife. Only the threat is a mental
The threat then triggers a chain reaction in the body. First of all hormones are
released into the system. Adrenaline is the one most people know about. And
these hormones then kick off a cascade of physical responses. Your heart and
your breathing speed up. Your muscles tense up and are charged with extra
energy from glucose released into the blood stream. Digestion shuts down as you
don’t need to waste energy digesting your dinner when you have a threat to deal
with. All of this causes the body to heat up.
There is one further reaction, little talked about, which is particularly important
when it comes to stress. Out of our awareness, the brain is constantly monitoring
what is going on in the body. When it notices that the body has gone into fight or
flight mode it comes to the conclusion that the threat is real and significant. It
doesn’t matter if the threat is actually because we have inflated and unrealistic
fears. The brain says we are genuinely in trouble, ratcheting up the sense of
threat in the process. Put another way, we get more stressed.
This is where an effective breathing exercise comes in. If you can learn to calm
your breathing, which has sped up as part of the fight or flight response, you are
able to send the brain a different message. As the brain senses that the body is
calming, it revises its estimate of the threat. Everything is OK. There is no need to
be worried. And so your stress reduces.
One of the most effective breathing exercises is 5/7 breathing. The process is
simple. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for 10 minutes, loosen any
tight or uncomfortable clothing, and sit or lie. Begin by breathing in through your
nose and out through your mouth noticing the physical sensations that you
experience. Slow your breathing and then begin breathing to a rhythm which you
count in your head. Breathe in through the nose to a count of five, pause a
moment, and then breathe out through the mouth to a count of seven. If five and
seven is too difficult try four and six as your rhythm. Just ensure that your out-
breath is longer than your in-breath. And having got your rhythm going, breathe
this way for five minutes (perhaps setting a timer on your phone to help you).
5/7 breathing also needs practice. Think of it as like learning a new skill. The
more you do it the better you get at it. And the more effective it becomes in terms
of helping you to feel calm. Once you have been practicing for a few weeks you
will find that you can drop easily into this form of breathing, and that you are
able to use it at the times when you feel most stressed. You will also become
more resilient, so that you are less vulnerable to stress in the first place.