How Stress Affects Your Breathing Is Pretty Mind-Blowing, But It Totally Makes Sense

by Julia Guerra

When people talk about wellness, they often separate mental and physical health, as if one doesn’t directly correlate with the other. Your mind and body don’t just coexist, my friends; they’re a unit, meaning when your mental health is suffering, chances are, your physical health is, too, and vice versa. Take how stress affects your breathing, for example. When you’ve studied as hard as you possibly could for an exam, and you still don’t understand the material, your mind starts racing, and it can almost feel like your breath is trying to keep up. It can be really scary in the moment, how negative thoughts can have a serious effect on your physical body, but when you think about the logistics of it all, it makes sense.

Personally, I am a very anxious individual (I even get stressed over the mere idea of getting stressed), so I know first-hand what it’s like when your emotions take the wheel and steer your body all over the place, like a clumsy teenager learning how to drive. It’s definitely not what I would call a fun time, but it is science, and that alone makes the experience a little less concerning, and a little more intriguing.

When you're mentally stressed, your body isn't relaxed, which affects how you breathe, and where you're breathing from.

One of my favorite breathing techniques in yoga is the belly breath, because deep inhalations through your nose — the kind that fills you up and expands your belly through the diaphragm — helps transition your entire body into a relaxed state of being. It’s the type of rhythmic breathing you might notice in a baby when they're sound asleep. But, according to doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, the way you breathe actually changes as you get older. You tend to stop breathing in through your diaphragm as much, she explains, and you start breathing through your chest instead.

“Breathing through your chest creates a stressful experience for your body and communicates to your brain that you are not in a completely relaxed state,” Dr. Forshee tells Elite Daily. “This is why practicing [breathing through your diaphragm] is important in your daily life, so that you can train yourself and your brain to understand that you are safe.”

When you’re stressed, your body automatically goes into fight-or-flight mode, flaring up the hormone cortisol. According Linette Carrier, a product and culture trainer at Saje, the release of this hormone in your body causes you to “take shorter breaths while tensing up and constricting your muscles.” This is when your body will focus on “running and fleeing versus digesting and breathing," she tells Elite Daily. In other words, a worried mind can send your entire body into a physical frenzy.

And while we’re on the subject of hormones (aka the root of all evil, amirite?), Robert Glatter, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health, tells Elite Daily that adrenaline has a lot to do with it, too. Because your respiratory system is running at such a high speed in times of stress, your heart rate quickens, and your blood pressure spikes, causing you to “breathe faster and in a more shallow manner," he explains.

Stress-induced breaths can feel erratic, but there are a few ways to calm yourself, and your body down, in the moment.

It’s probably going to seem a little silly for me to suggest that when stressful situations mess with your breathing, you should take even more breaths, but hear me out, OK? As Dr. Forshee mentioned earlier, when you’re stressed out, you start to breathe through your chest. To combat this, you need to consciously work on inhaling and exhaling with the diaphragm.

Expanding on this technique, Dr. Glatter suggests taking anywhere from six to 10 “deep abdominal breaths” for 10 minutes. This will “reduce your heart rate by 15 to 20 beats per minute,” and, at the same time, decrease your respiratory rate “by 20 to 30 percent.” If you have the time, he adds, continuing for 20 minutes or so will show the best results.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of yoga and guided meditation practices to reduce my stress levels, because they keep me calm, but they also teach you how to breathe more mindfully. There are a ton of free yoga classes you can stream on YouTube (Yoga With Adriene and Bad Yogi Erin Motz are two of my favorites), and meditation apps are very trendy right now. I suggest giving Headspace or Stop, Breathe, Think a try.

Additionally, Thumbtack therapist TJ Walsh, of TJ Walsh Counseling, tells Elite Daily that muscle relaxation exercises are excellent, too, and even something as simple as taking a walk would suffice. Anything you can do to relax your mind — be it deep breaths, a stroll around the block, or even using soothing essential oils — will really help relax your body and stabilize your breathing. Find what works for you, and use it to your advantage the next time stress takes its toll.