The power of breathing

04 October 2022

Dr Denning, a cognitive behavioural therapist for Working to Wellbeing, has outlined a series of 'resilience boosters', or tools and techniques that you can use to help better manage stress and anxiety.

The vlogs examine how to respond to the physical and physiological effects of stress in the workplace; how to understand the emotional effects of stress; and - as we will look at here - how better to manage the 'fight or flight' response that is a common part of feeling stressed or anxious.

A key way to do this, as Dr Denning explains, is through the power of breathing.

Of course, we breathe all the time. The important point here is what happens to our breathing when we become stressed and how, in turn, through a few simple exercises we can get better control and calm our breathing when stress raises its head.

The power of breathing

In this vlog, Dr Julie Denning, a Chartered Health Psychologist and CBT therapist, discusses the power of breathing as a tool to help manage everyday stress.

It's not hard to recognise when you're beginning to feel stressed - and not pleasant either. You can start to feel like everything's becoming too much or caving in on you. Your heart may be racing. You may have butterflies in your stomach. Your breathing can become shallower and more rushed. You can begin to hunch or tense up. You may start to feel shaky or panicked.

Of course, some stress or challenge in life - whether in our work or personal lives - can be beneficial. Having a deadline or goal to meet, feeling stretched in what you're tasked to achieve, can help us to improve and progress, as well as giving us a sense of satisfaction and achievement.

However, there can be a fine line between 'good' pressure and 'bad' stress. The Health and Safety Executive, in its well-respected management standards for stress, identifies six key work areas that can be common triggers for stress. These are:

  • Demands: For example, hours, workload, work patterns and our work environment.
  • Control: How much say we have in the way we do our work.
  • Support: The level or type of support we get from our colleagues, managers and leaders.
  • Relationships: The amount of conflict or, conversely, positive behaviours we experience.
  • Role: The extent to which we understand our role within the organisation and how it contributes.
  • Change: How organisational change (large or small) is managed and/or communicated within your organisation.

Many of these stress triggers are, of course, factors outside of our control. However, one thing we can improve is understanding what happens to our body when we do get stressed and, from there, learning behaviours and responses that will help us better to manage those feelings.

Understanding 'fight or flight'

The first thing to understand in this context is what the 'fight or flight' response is and how it affects us when it does kick in.

As Dr Denning explains, the fight or flight response is our body's way of rushing to our mind's aid when we perceive a threat. "It is a very, very old system in our brain, going back to the days when we needed to run away from, say, sabre-toothed tigers," she points out.

These days, of course, 'threats' in our day-to-day life tend to be more psychological than physical. "They might be things like a really difficult meeting that you've got coming up. Or an emotional conversation you've got to have with someone. Or it could be a day where you can just see the multitude of different things you've got to do," Dr Denning says.

What happens in this scenario is our mind perceives a threat, signals go from mind to body, and the body then gears itself up to deal with that threat. This may be by either 'fighting' the situation (for example dealing with it through problem-solving) or by 'flight', in other words by working to avoid or disengage from what is occurring.

Fight or flight can manifest itself in different ways. "What people often say is they can feel they can't quite catch their breath because they're trying to get a lot of oxygen on board. You might notice that your heart rate increases as you're trying urgently to get that richly oxygenated blood pumped round to the big muscle groups in your body," explains Dr Denning.

While this is all perfectly normal, it can feel overwhelming. However, your breathing will also naturally slow and return to normal when a threat passes. This is why learning to control and calm your breathing can be so important - and so effective. It can act as, in effect, a manual override to the fight or flight response.

The '3-4-5 breath' breathing exercise

The second half of Dr Denning's vlog focuses on simple breathing exercises that you can learn and use next time you find yourself feeling stressed. These are broadly based on exercises developed by Dr Rangan Chatterjee.

Of these, the '3-4-5 breath' exercise is one of the simplest breathing techniques you can practise, she points out.

Simply breathe in for three slow counts. Then hold your breath for a further four counts. Then, finally, breath out for five slow counts.

"It is really significant that you breathe out for longer than you breathe in," advises Dr Denning. "It's a really important part of the breathing process, when you're slowing your breathing down, just make sure that the outward breath is longer than the inward breath."

It may feel strange at first, especially the slow breathing out and sensation of your lungs emptying. But try to get into a regular, gentle rhythm; try to give 'permission' to yourself to get into a calming flow of slow breathing.

"You might want to put one hand on top of your chest. You might want to put one hand on your stomach. Just notice what is happening to your hands as you’re breathing in. You're holding and you're breathing out," recommends Dr Denning.

"As you’re breathing slowly, notice the rhythm that you're feeling and your ribcage expanding. You might even notice a sensation of your body shrinking back around as your lungs are emptying. And your shoulders coming back as you're breathing in more air," she adds.

The aim is to be connecting with your body, to start noticing your feelings, to being to feel calm and soothed. "Slowly feel your body unwinding," Dr Denning explains. "It is about enabling your body to turn down the volume of that fight or flight response."

You can do this exercise for however long works for you, for whatever time it takes to make a difference. This could be 15 minutes, five minutes, even just 60 seconds.

"Just take moments during your day to breathe and calm yourself, and not only when you're feeling stressed. It will help you.

"Also, even when you're feeling calm just practise slow breathing so that when you're next feeling a bit stressed or a bit overwhelmed you can reach for this technique," Dr Denning concludes.

About Dr Julie Denning and the author

Dr Julie Denning is the Managing Director of Working to Wellbeing and Chair, Vocational Rehabilitation Association.

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.