We live in unprecedented times. Today’s world is interconnected and fast-paced, it never sleeps. We’re all overloaded with information, and at the same time deprived of many traditional outlets our forefathers used to relieve stress and tension. 

Numbers speak volumes

The World Health Organization estimates that one in four individuals worldwide will experience mental health challenges during their lifetime. In the past year, over 70% of people reported feeling so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Just in the United States, nearly half of the population has dealt with sleepless nights due to stress within the last month. And while it's important to admit that many of these cases present a real danger and require medical intervention, prevention is oftentimes better than cure.

Demystifying stress

Negative emotions, such as stress and anxiety are not just arbitrary sensations. These emotional states are a manifestation of a complex cascade of physiological responses in the body. What we describe as simply “feeling stressed” is in fact a reaction of your body and mind when facing an internal or external stressor, whether it be a looming deadline or a collection of repressed thoughts and emotions that finally begin to surface.

When stress strikes, the brain’s hypothalamus triggers the body’s stress response system. This initiates a cascade of events, starting with the release of corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH prompts the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which then travels through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. The adrenal glands respond by producing cortisol, commonly known as the "stress hormone." Cortisol is crucial for mobilizing the body's resources to handle stress. It regulates metabolism, raises blood sugar levels, and enhances the body's inflammatory response while also suppressing immune function. Furthermore, cortisol impacts the brain, influencing mood, motivation, and fear.

Under the hood of anxiety

Similarly, anxiety is not just feeling antsy with a knot in your gut. Just like with stress, when facing a perceived threat or danger, the sympathetic nervous system activates the body's fight-or-flight response. This triggers the release of adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) from the adrenal glands, heightening alertness, increasing heart rate, and boosting energy levels to prepare for action. 

Your body is trying to protect you

These physiological changes are adaptive in the short term, helping you respond effectively to challenging situations. However, when stress and anxiety become chronic or overwhelming, the prolonged elevation of cortisol and adrenaline levels can have detrimental effects on health. Chronic stress has been linked to a number of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, immune dysfunction, and mental health disorders such as depression. When dealing with these mental states it's important to give your body credit where credit is due – it’s trying to protect you and give you that extra edge that would’ve helped our ancestors escape predators and outsmart their enemies. 

Get to know about: How To Maximise Your Workout Performance With Breath

Using your breath to calm the nerves

But since in our modern daily lives, we aren't trying to outrun sabretooth tigers that often, this care and protection can be a bit much. Our conscious brains realize that a missed deadline isn't a life-or-death situation. Our monkey brain, however, doesn't discriminate – for danger is danger. Luckily, by becoming more attuned to our bodies, we can learn to control these mechanisms. 

One of the most powerful tools for this kind of feedback is controlled breathing techniques, such as those offered by the Oxa breathing trainer, which provide a powerful antidote to the physiological effects of stress and anxiety. By deliberately altering the rhythm and depth of our breath, you can directly influence the body's stress response system and promote a state of calmness and relaxation.

Also Read: How To Maximise Your Workout Performance With Breath

Here is how it works

Practicing controlled breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "rest-and-digest" system, which mitigates the stress-induced fight-or-flight response. This stimulation causes the body to release neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, leading to a reduction in heart rate.

Controlled breathing has also been shown to decrease the production of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, thereby reducing the physiological burden of chronic stress. By fostering a sense of mindfulness and presence, controlled breathing techniques can also help you disengage from rumination and worry, redirecting your focus to the present moment and promoting a state of mental clarity and equilibrium. 

Here are three great breathing exercises that will help you get started on this journey: 

Resonance Breathing

  1. Find a Quiet Space: Choose a calm and comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  2. Slow Inhale: Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of six seconds.
  3. Gentle Exhale: Exhale fully and gently through your mouth for another six seconds.
  4. Maintain Rhythm: Keep this steady, rhythmic pattern going.
  5. Focus: Concentrate on the natural flow of your breath and the calming, balanced feeling it provides.

Oxa App Users: Start with a Coherence tutorial and move on as you progress.

Minimal Breathing

  1. Posture: Sit or stand upright to keep your airway open.
  2. Breathing Technique: Inhale and exhale quietly through your nose, concentrating on engaging your diaphragm.
  3. Breath Volume: Slightly decrease the amount of air you take in with each breath, ensuring it remains comfortable.
  4. Duration: Sustain this gentler breathing pattern for several minutes.
  5. Progression: Gradually lengthen the duration of your practice, allowing your body to adjust to the controlled air hunger.

Oxa App Users: Search for Animal Breathing, then,  then progress to Minimal Breathing I for deeper practice.

Breath Holds

  1. Get Comfortable: Sit or lie down in a relaxed position.
  2. Inhale Deeply: Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose.
  3. Exhale and Hold: Exhale completely, then hold your breath for a duration that feels comfortable (begin with a few seconds and slowly increase).
  4. Resume Breathing: Return to normal breathing, then repeat the process.
  5. Progress Gradually: Over time, extend the duration of your breath holds as you become more comfortable.

Oxa App Users: Go for a Finding Comfort in Anxiety II exercise.

Q: What causes stress and anxiety on a physiological level? 

A: Stress and anxiety are initiated by the body's intricate response to perceived threats or challenges. This process activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, resulting in the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

Q: What are the long-term effects of chronic stress and anxiety on health? 

A: Chronic stress and anxiety have been linked to a range of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, immune dysfunction, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, underscoring the profound impact of negative emotions on overall well-being.

Q: Can controlled breathing techniques really help with stress and anxiety? 

A: Yes, research suggests that controlled breathing techniques can effectively regulate stress and anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing heart rate, and reducing cortisol levels.

Q: How often should I practice controlled breathing to experience benefits? 

A: Consistency is key. Aim to practice controlled breathing exercises for at least a few minutes each day to reap the most benefits.

Angelina Sarycheva
June 11, 2024

MA, CPT accredited by The International Sports Science Association, is a health writer and Content Lead at Oxa Life. With over five years in the health and wellness industry, her expertise, rooted in hands-on experience with leading wellness brands, is to deliver impactful health content to a global audience.

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Get the Oxa Sensor and your choice of garment - lounge-wear shirt, bra, or adjustable chest strap. Your purchase includes access to the Oxa app which gives personalized data summaries and insights, as well as access to breathing exercises to teach you how to harness the power of your own breath.