Stress is an unavoidable part of life for everyone. Even people with the best lives – loving relationships, fulfilling jobs, financial security, good physical health – go through stressful events. For the most part, we can handle it because that is the way we are wired. Our brains and bodies generate stress responses that are designed to help us cope, so while we may feel sad, anxious, angry or afraid after a stressful event, we do, in time, regain our equilibrium.
That, at least, is the theory. Anyone who has been through a major stressful life event will know that it is not as easy as that to overcome stress. One of the reasons for this is that stress is rarely a one-time phenomenon: it accumulates over time as one thing after another is piled on us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark illustration of this: in addition to health concerns and the loss of loved ones, many people have been dealing with job loss, a decline in income, and strained relationships as everybody has had to be at home all the time. That is over and above the life stresses everyone was already going through.
What is the solution to this? How can we get by on a day-to-day basis when life seems too overwhelming? To find an answer, many of us can cast our minds back to when we were teenagers going through teenage angst, when our parents would say something like, “Just take a deep breath and calm down.”
We may have rolled our eyes at this advice at the time, but it turns out that Mom and Dad were not far off the mark. In this article, we will talk about how deep breathing is a legitimate tool for managing stress.
What Happens When We Are Stressed?
Our bodies are indeed wired to adapt to stressful situations. Like all living beings, we are born with an instinct for self-preservation that outweighs all other needs. So when we are confronted with any kind of threat, the brain and autonomic nervous system kick into gear to protect us. They do this by flooding us with hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare our bodies to handle the threat. We’ve all heard stories about non-athletic people being able to outrun danger, and moms suddenly getting the strength to lift heavy objects to save a trapped child.
The way in which we respond to stress depends on several factors, such as the specific situation, and the individual it is happening to. Most responses fall roughly into the categories of fight, flight, freeze or fawn.
The Fight Response
As the name suggests, the fight response stems from a need to confront the threat directly and gain control over the situation. For example, if someone comes at you with a fist, looking as if they will punch you, you might punch them first in order to protect yourself.
The word “fight” does not always imply physical aggression, though. This response manifests in many ways, including the following:
- Someone makes an unfounded accusation against you, and you speak out, saying they are wrong
- Your boss calls you into their office to talk about poor work performance, and you start listing your accomplishments and actions
- Your spouse accuses you of cheating on a particular day, and you produce proof that this is not true
- Someone attacks your character on social media, and you respond with attacks on their character
- A family member criticises your parenting, and you lash back in defence
The Flight Response
People who use this response have no desire to confront the threat head-on – or they may be unable to. Consider what happens in the event of a house fire. Instead of throwing water on the fire, most people will get themselves, their families and their pets out of the house.
In flight mode, your primary goal is to escape from the threat. Examples of this include the following:
- You spend long periods of time at a friend’s house in order to avoid parents who yell all the time
- You avoid certain hallways at school because you’re afraid of bullies
- When your spouse starts arguing with you, you walk away
- You respond to aggressive posts on social media by blocking the people responsible
- You escape from your own destructive thoughts by losing yourself in your studies, or by using substances
The Freeze Response
Sometimes we cannot determine whether the best path to safety lies in fighting or fleeing. Instead of doing either, we stay still but we watch the situation carefully until we can decide what to do. For example, someone confronted with a potential attacker may not know whether it is safer to try to fight or to run away.
Freezing – the stereotypical “deer in the headlights” scenario – is a defence mechanism that we use when we don’t know what else to do. It can take various forms:
- During arguments, you go silent and hide your emotions
- You isolate yourself in your room or office
- You avoid spending time with people
- You retreat into a fantasy or imaginative world
- Small tasks like taking a shower or getting dressed seem insurmountable
The Fawn Response
This response centres around appeasing the person responsible for the threat. In abusive relationships, the victim will usually go to any length possible to avoid upsetting the abuser, in order to stay safe.
Fawning behaviour can take on several forms, including the following:
- Codependency, where you cater to the other person’s needs at the expense of your own
- Agreeing to do things that you don’t want to do
- Refraining from expressing your own opinions or feelings for fear of angering the other person
- Foregoing your own career ambitions, interests, and friendships in order to have more time available for your partner
- Apologising to the other person to calm them down, even if you haven’t done anything wrong
Physiological Responses To Stress
Back in the days of hunters and gatherers, people had to be prepared to react instantly to physical threats like animals and natural phenomena like storms. Our physiological response to stress literally evolved to improve the body’s performance when it came to escaping or confronting these sources of danger – the original “fight or flight” response.
To prepare your body for action, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, you experience a tightening of the muscles, and you start to breathe more quickly. Your survival instinct takes over as you focus exclusively on either fight or flight. Once you have either overcome or escaped from the threat, your body’s systems and functions gradually return to their baseline state.
The Changing Nature Of Stress
The problem with all of this is that humans don’t hunt for survival anymore. We don’t have to run for miles to escape from a natural disaster, and we don’t have to fend off attacks from wild animals. Our stress comes from things like work pressure, economic hardship, dysfunctional relationships, and the erosion of human rights.
And yet our bodies still respond to stress as if our ability to survive is facing clear and present danger. We are geared to physically jump and run when a threat arises, even if that threat is not to our life or physical safety. The problem is that for someone who has just lost a job or been through an ugly divorce, elevated physiological responses are not very useful. There is no physical danger to fight. There is nothing to run away from, except in a metaphorical sense.
All Geared Up And Nowhere To Go
What this means is that in times of stress, our bodies are geared up and ready to go. Our hearts are pumping faster to get fresh oxygen to our muscles. Our muscles are flexed for action. We are breathing faster to get more lungs full of oxygen. And then – nothing happens. Our bodies don’t go anywhere, but because our survival instinct has kicked in and is telling that we still have a reason to be afraid, those physiological responses don’t slow down.
A lot of modern-day stress lasts for a long time. People who are living paycheque to paycheque, or who are unhappy in their marriages, or who are anxious about laws designed to take away their rights, often find themselves permanently geared for fight or flight – even if their actual response is to freeze or fawn. Because the threat doesn’t go away, the body’s metabolic functions do not slow down. It becomes a vicious cycle of stress driving the response, which in turn creates more stress.
Tricking The Body Into Slowing Down
Sometimes, when your breathing and heart rate won’t slow down, you have to slow things down yourself. Deep breathing – where you completely fill your lungs – will help lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and relax those muscles that are tensed for action. This gets you out of fight-or-flight mode, and although the stressors in your life are still present, you are in a better state to think about them rationally and engage in proper problem-solving or mitigation strategies.
To give deep breathing a try, follow these steps:
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down where you know you will not be disturbed.
- Close your eyes and take a regular breath.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold your breath for one or two seconds, then exhale slowly through the mouth.
- Do this several times. Imagine that you are inhaling positivity and calm, and exhaling turmoil and negative thoughts.
Even a few deep breaths will have a benefit, so you can do this at any point in the day when you’re feeling frazzled. Try to set aside around ten minutes a day, and make deep breathing a habit. The results may surprise you: you will feel more equipped to cope with the stressful events in your life, and you may find that your overall health starts to improve. This technique is a simple tool that will help you avoid destructive behaviours like addiction, and instead approach your challenges with a clear mind.