Sounds a little simplistic, doesn’t it? The very idea that breathing, what we do automatically, is directly related to how we manage stress and self-control is a little laughable. Until you break it down and understand the power of our innate ability to handle what life throws at us. Faith-based people often refer to the phrase, “God only gives you what you can handle…” And then we silently respond with “Boy, He must think I’m really strong!” You are. I am. We are. But oftentimes, we don’t know it or are so overwhelmed, we forget that we already have the tools we need to survive. So, consider this article as a reminder or a wake-up call in stress management. It’s important because stress can kill, literally. Left untreated, stress (physical, mental and emotional) are the precursors to illness and disease. For those in drug or alcohol recovery, stress is the greatest factor in opting to fall back into addictive behaviors. In order to avoid relapse triggers, it is our inner-strength found in the ability to deal with stress as it comes that will see us through. Maintain self-control during recovery. This is how it happens.
Response to Stressors Is Automated in Our DNA
Let’s say you are walking home after meeting friends for dinner at a popular restaurant in town. It’s about 9:23 in the evening, the temperature is brisk and the exercise will do you good after eating that slice of cheesecake. But you’re a couple of miles from your house so you decide to take a shortcut through a side street. You notice the streetlights are out but continue down the road. Up ahead, you hear metal trashcans being moved but cannot see who is doing moving them.
Suddenly, your heart seems to pump faster – feeling like it’s jumping out of your chest. You get goosebumps from a rush of fear that cascades throughout the body. Your senses are heightened as a keen awareness in everything around you quickly become crystal clear. Okay, it’s just a feral cat rummaging through scraps looking for food. But until you know that for sure, the body and the mind kick in its natural fight-or-flight-response.
Stress Takes Your Breath Away
If you’ve ever been scared to the point that it shut down your breathing, you know how fear put a chokehold on life. But the stress that precipitated the fear or trauma is defined in one of two ways: acute or chronic.
Acute stress is brought on by a specific event: a death of a loved one or unexpected detrimental news or circumstances such as a car accident. Chronic stress is rooted in an extended time frame where stress is endured. Chronic stress can begin as acute stress, for example the decision for divorce, but then as the divorce process continues and there is a prolonged period of stress evident chronic stress arises. If we don’t deal with instances of acute stress, it can shift into chronic stress and the damage to wellbeing affects respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
The Relationship Between Stress and Our Ability to Cope
No one ever said that life was easy. Even the most calculated and cautious individuals will be caught off guard by unexpected life events that will put the best-made-plans to rest. In our pursuit of happiness, it’s the roadblocks of stress that can get in the way, or is it?
Stress in and of itself may not be the deterrent to happiness but it is the inability to cope, essential to maintain self-control in recovery, that will cause us harm.
The Moment Stress Happens
Let’s get back to the instant you first experience stress. Your breathing changes and for some, it increases to a rapid pace. The stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline go to work activating the body’s responses to the situation. Should the increased breathing rate continue, shortness of breath is perceived furthering the need to breath faster. The cycle can spur hyperventilating, leading to a panic attack. If we don’t learn how to process stressful circumstances, each time we experience them, our go-to coping mechanism is to hyperventilate which will onset a panic attack.
Many people react to stress in this manner but it’s not a positive way to go about daily life and minimizes our power in facing challenges and overcoming them. For those with existing respiratory conditions including asthma, learning effective and productive responses to stress can be life-saving. And for anyone amidst drug or alcohol addiction recovery, solutions in how to deal with stress can be the difference between continued recovery and succumbing to relapse.
Breathing Can Control Brain Activity
According to a study conducted by Stanford University, varied breathing patterns were monitored in controlled groups of mice. More than 3,000 neurons were identified, noting differences in brain response and breathing in conditions of excitement compared to resting or crying. These researchers referred to this process as a breathing pacemaker, specifically calling out 60 kinds of nerve cells in its makeup. Moreover, once the nerve cells were removed – the ones responsible for excitability responses to stress – the mice were able to sustain calm without hindering normal breathing patterns.
This same benefit can be enabled in humans through willful breathing exercises.
Breathe Stress Away and Keep Recovery Active
Consider how you breathe, right now. It’s strange how we short change oxygen intake and the corresponding outflow of carbon dioxide. We do this by taking shallow breaths using the chest and shoulders instead of diaphragmatic breathing.
The benefits of breathing through use of the diaphragm are longstanding and have been touted for centuries through ancient practices of meditation and other holistic methodologies. During moments of stress, when we engage diaphragmatic or deep breathing, it allows us to refocus our energy on slow, deliberate, healthy air intake and therapeutic outflow of negative energy. As our energy shifts to the positive, other unhealthy thoughts are diverted keeping us mindful and in the moment to help avoid relapse triggers that can destroy the addiction recovery process.
The next time you find the rigors of life creeping up on your emotional balance, tune inward and reinvigorate personal power. Just breathe stress away.
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.