Feeling the signs of stress? How you breathe matters

There are plenty of new hacks, apps, or trends claiming to be the solution to personal or professional challenges, but what if we possess the power to change how we feel? Finally, modern science is catching up with ancient yoga breathing practices and realising that how we breathe matters. As a certified breath coach, I help people use their breath to their advantage to manage stress and anxiety and find calm and clarity by changing how they breathe.

Just because we are breathing, it does not mean we are doing it well. We breathe over 20,000 times a day, but, for many of us, most of this goes unnoticed.

There is a two-way link between stress and breathing. When stressed, we breathe faster and shallower and the body releases hormones, such as cortisol, but how we breathe can also give rise to the physiological, psychological, and behavioural feelings of stress. For example, increased heart rate and blood pressure, digestion issues, and trouble concentrating or sleeping.

As an entrepreneur, it can feel that stress often comes with the territory. Securing funding, managing time, and hiring the right people to join the team. Entrepreneurs are the engine of the business. If an entrepreneur is stressed, it is harder for them to be at their best to make decisions, get creative and problem-solve.

One of the answers to managing stress is right under the nose.

The breath is the link between the body and mind

Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again”

The beauty of the breath is that while automatic, it can be controlled by speeding it up or slowing it down. The breath is a lever to control the autonomic nervous system. This system has two branches, the parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight or flight).

The stress response keeps us safe and ready for action, but we should not remain there indefinitely; we need time for rest, repair, and refuelling. Unfortunately, many busy entrepreneurs are stuck in the stress cycle and are on constant high alert. We can down-regulate the nervous system and activate the rest and digest response by slowing down the breath and breathing from the diaphragm.

Here are a few strategies and conscious breathing techniques to manage and relieve stress that continue to work for me and are what I share with clients.

Stress awareness

The events or experiences that cause feelings of stress are not universal. Something that sends one person into a frenzy can be like water off a duck's back to another person. As an entrepreneur, identifying stressors and their impact makes it possible to put prevention plans in place or recognise early signs of stress.

Breath awareness

The first step to changing the breath to help with stress management is to pay attention to it. How is the breath behaving throughout the day? Fast, slow, shallow, or deep. Use the work commute or lunch break as a prompt. Some people can find it helpful to hold one hand on the heart as a way to better connect with the breath. If staying focused is difficult, try counting each breath, up to 10. If you notice that the breath is fast, shallow, and high up in the chest, you can make a change to slow it down and calm the stress response

Nasal breathing

To manage stress and invite calm, focus on nasal breathing during rest and sleep. When we mouth breath it can sustain the stress response, sending signals that there is a threat to prepare for

Nasal breathing will slow the breath, reduce the heart rate and blood pressure and activate the 'rest and digest' system. When breathing through the nose, the brain receives signals that there is nothing to fear, giving the best chance of focusing attention on the task or challenge ahead.

Nasal breathing can also positively impact the quality and quantity of sleep, which can in turn impact the ability to function the following day. Placing a small piece of medical micropore tape vertically over the lips can help to make the switch to nasal breathing.

A calmer breath promotes a calmer mind. Intentionally slowing down breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. This nerve serves as a gateway to the parasympathetic nervous system - the place for rest, digestion, and relaxation.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm, but it is common to see people looking like they have just run the 100-meter hurdle. They breathe using the chest and take frequent inhales and exhales. Engaging the diaphragm when breathing is another way to initiate the rest and digest response, manage stress, and breath more efficiently.

A helpful exercise to practice diaphragmatic breathing can be done as part of the night time routine, signalling the brain to slow down and prepare for sleep.

Step 1: Lie down flat

Step 2: Place a book, block, or one hand on the stomach

Step 3: Inhale for a count of four, focus on the belly rising

Step 4: Exhale for a count of eight, focus on the belly falling

Repeat this for ten rounds. This 4:8 breathing exercise incorporates extended exhalation, helping to further promote relaxation and reduce stress as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.

Physiological sigh

There will be times in the world of startup entrepreneurship when the stress response is high, and there is a need for immediate stress relief. The physiological sigh is a fast way to manage stress in just a few simple steps:

  • One nasal inhale, a short pause, one more nasal inhale
  • Followed by one long exhale out of the mouth
  • Do this a few times to feel stress relief in real-time

Try it and see how you feel

How we breathe matters; slowing the breath by focusing on nasal and diaphragmatic breathing all help to initiate the rest and digest response and bring about balance. These techniques are natural, free, and available to use anytime, anywhere. Changing how you breathe will not stop life stressors but will allow a change of state, one that is more conducive to creating a plan of action to tackle the many challenges entrepreneurs face. Breathing is not a golden pill but is another item to add to the well-being toolbox.