The Stress Response and Its Affects on Breathing


The stress response was adaptive for physical survival

When prehistoric humans were in physical danger, they had to be prepared to fight or run away.  The stress response below helped them survive.

  1. Muscle tension:  Large skeletal muscles contract to prepare you for action (fight or flight) or to help you hold still and hide (the freeze response).  When chronic, this tension can cause pain and discomfort, especially in the shoulders, neck, back and head.
  2. Rapid breathing:  As the lungs attempt to provide the blood with more oxygen, hyperventilation (over-breathing) may occur.  Muscle tension and anxiety may also cause a person to hold their breath or to take quick shallow breaths.  Both can lead to faintness, dizziness and tingling.
  3. Dilated pupils:  The eyes allow in more light to help the person see the threat.
  4. Racing heart / palpitations / increased blood pressure:  More blood is pumped around the body carrying oxygen to produce energy.  Blood pressure may also increase due to constricted blood vessels.
  5. Blushing, sweating:  The body needs to get rid of the heat generated in the production of energy.
  6. Dry mouth and slowed digestion:  Digestions slows down or ceases because it is a non-vital function when facing a physical threat.  Saliva is part of the digestive process and is reduced when digestion slows.
  7. Restlessness:  Adrenaline causes a “rush” of energy.  Other stress hormones are also released that affect various organ systems.  Stress hormones take time to subside.
  8. Shaking or trembling:  Adrenaline may cause you to shake.  Also lactic acid buildup in the muscle tissues can cause shaking or trembling (often in anticipation of the threat or after the threat has passed).
  9. Intense Emotions: Fear motivates us to be cautious, to anticipate dangers, and to hide or run if necessary.  Anger can motivate us to defend ourselves or our loved ones… to fight.
  10. Effects on the mind:  Intense emotions, excess energy, and alarm may make it difficult to think clearly or focus.  Your mind may rapidly jump from one thought to another, you may have racing thoughts or worries, and you may have difficulty remembering things or making decisions.

The stress response is less adaptive in coping with modern stress

Although this stress response is useful in dealing with physical threats, it is much less useful in dealing with modern stressors like deadlines, finances, presentations, traffic jams or sensory overload.  It also doesn’t help much with positive stressors involved in growing, learning, pursuing your life dreams, and achieving goals.

Indeed, the stress response, especially when chronic, can create problems. Chronic stress can contribute to heart problems, digestion problems, decreased immunity, body aches and pains, headaches, and many other physical, emotional, mental, behavioral and social consequences.  Nonetheless, our bodies still react with the same old stress response.

That’s why it’s important to understand your natural responses to stress, and to learn how to manage stress effectively through a variety of strategies including: understanding your difficulties and triggers, problem-solving, self-care, communication skills, emotion management, cognitive strategies, time management, organization, mindfulness, and especially relaxation techniques (to calm the body).

Effects of stress on breathing

There is one part of the stress response that I’d like to discuss in more detail.  This is how our breathing responds to stress.  Breathing is important for two reasons.  First, breathing rapidly can create some frightening symptoms (e.g.: lightheadedness).  Second, breathing is something you can learn to control consciously, and therefore, something that you can use to trigger the relaxation response.

Hyperventilation or over-breathing (“fight or flight”)

Some people tend to hyperventilate (or over-breathe) when stressed.  In other words, they breathe faster and deeper than they need to.  This is part of the “fight or flight” response.  They’re actually breathing too much rather than not enough.  This may be more pronounced for some and subtle for others.

Hyperventilation can cause symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, headache and numbness or tingling in the hands, feet and lips.  Although someone who is hyperventilating feels that they can’t get enough air, they usually have normal levels of oxygen in their blood.

The problem is that hyperventilation causes you to breathe out more carbon dioxide than your body produces.  This reduces the carbon dioxide in the blood below its normal level.  This increases the pH level of your blood, which triggers the constriction of blood vessels, and thus reduces blood flow to your brain and other organs.  Because the blood is flowing through narrower blood vessels, it takes longer to bring oxygen to where it’s needed, making you feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, even though it’s abundant in your bloodstream.

The catch is that since you feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, you’re going to want to breathe even faster and deeper to supply more oxygen.  In so doing, you will be breathing out even more carbon dioxide, making your blood vessels constrict even more, and feeling even worse.

Tension and restricted breathing (“freeze or faint”)

Stress can also cause some people to tense up and take shallower breaths, and sometimes even to hold their breath.  This is part of the “freeze or faint” response which could help people to hide when in danger.

Such restricted breathing limits the amount of oxygen that you take in, and can reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood.  Therefore, your heart has to work harder to pump more blood to all your organs and tissues to supply them with oxygen.  The reduced amounts of oxygen in your blood can cause similar symptoms as caused by over-breathing:  lightheadedness, dizziness, headache and numbness or tingling in the hands, feet and lips.

A basic breathing technique

A basic technique you could use to counteract both of the above problems, and to trigger the relaxation response, includes the following three steps:

  • Focus your mind on your breath (and repeatedly re-focus when you get distracted again)
  • Slow down your breath by counting how long it takes to breathe in and out, and by extending your count every few breaths.  (you may start  with in-1, 2, 3, out-1, 2, 3, pause-1, 2… then add a count to each, breathe at this pace for a little while, until comfortable with this pace, then add another count, etc.
  • Continue for a few minutes of mindful, slow, deep, relaxed breathing.  Relax your muscles too while you’re at it.

Anda Jines MS LCPC offers mental health counseling services in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, in Tinley Park, IL (60477); near Orland Park, Oak Forest, Orland Hills, Palos Heights, Mokena, and Frankfort. Click here for more about Anda Jines MS LCPC.

Categories : Stress and Anxiety

Comments are closed.

Subscribe by RSS feed reader