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The First Defense to Manage Stress—Breathing

By Richard Kuhns

The first defense against unhealthy responses to stress is not to take a pill... but instead deep breathing. Caution, if you suffer from panic attacks or agoraphobia, this technique is not recommended until after the symptoms are treated. This is because breathing techniques require internal focusing which is not recommended for severe anxiety sufferers. For them, external relaxation techniques are recommended—see the resource box.

In response to stress, it is normal that our breathing is immediately affected. It becomes shallow and upper chest, which is actually part of the defense mechanism. Even a sigh is usually a tense upper chest unhealthy breadth.

We generally make three basic mistakes in breathing:

  1. We're so consumed with our appearance that we learn to hold in our stomachs which greatly limits our breathing to the upper chest.
  2. Then when we do take a deep breadth, we force our lungs to expand against our chest putting chest muscles in spasm. This can create chest and back pain.
  3. Some of us lift our shoulders to take in that deep breadth. It's called "clavicle breathing" and it contributes to neck and headache.
Life is about stress and as we adapt to higher and higher levels of stress from one year to the next, our normal breathing becomes tense. Even as we sleep, we may breathe in a tense manner. The tense breathing also starves the body of much needed oxygen, affects our posture, and blocks our chakras—the natural flow of energy through our bodies.

No matter what the physical health problem—headaches, neckaches, muscle pain... (all direct effects of stress), or disease such as cancer, heart disease... it's important to address breathing (except for severe anxiety sufferers as previously noted). Look for times during the day when you are feeling stressed, under pressure, in a rush, defensive, tense... It's during these times that instead of tensing as you normally would, that you instead remember to do your stress relief deep breathing.

And all you have to do to engage your first defense against stress is to consciously become aware of your breathing. Then shift from your upper chest tense breathing consciously to an abdominal breath.

How to take an abdominal breadth, the first defense against stress:

  1. Let your stomach and abdomen relax.
  2. Breathe down through your chest into your stomach.
  3. Let your stomach expand outward.
  4. Let your chest expand slightly at the end of the breadth.
  5. As you exhale, pull your stomach inward.
  6. Expel all the air up through your chest.
If you can hear yourself breathe, you are breathing too fast. Ten to twelve breaths per minute is find. If you feel your shoulders lifting as you inhale, it is a tense breadth. Just let your shoulders be loose and limp as you inhale and exhale. Let your arms hang from your shoulder like rope.

If you have the time, take a class in Yoga breathing to get in some serious breathing. Yoga will provide many healthful benefits.

When to do your deep breathing: make a list of times during the day when it would be appropriate to take advantage of the deep breathing stress management technique such as:

  • Whenever you're at a red light.
  • As you're waiting for your computer to load a program or shut down.
  • Before answering the phone or making a phone call.
  • As you listen to someone conversing with you.
  • Before eating or drinking.
  • Before entering a building or an office.
  • Whenever you notice yourself feeling stressed.
  • Whenever you can remember to take a deep breadth.

The problem is that no one makes any money from deep breathing. No drugs are required so you will not hear an announcement on the radio, "Remember to do your stress reduction deep breathing exercise!"

Richard Kuhns B.S.Ch.E., NGH certified, provides genuine effective tips for getting the most from your elderly parent's doctor. Creator of over 50 self help stress management programs at and

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