Modern stress is the single greatest factor affecting the health and happiness of people. Cell Biologist, Dr. Bruce Lipton has said:
Only 1% of illness is related to genes, 90% of illness is related to stress.
Why is it that stress has such a major impact on our health? What it comes down to is the oxygenation of our cells. Modern stress starves the cells of oxygen. Dr. Arthur C. Guyton has stated that:
All chronic pain, suffering, and diseases are caused by a lack of oxygen at the cell level.
The truth is that modern stress can permanently alter the way we breathe—resulting in reduced oxygen delivery to the cells. Before diving into the effects of stress on breathing, it is important to understand the fundamentals of oxygen delivery in the previous post.
Stress & Breathing Volume
You are probably familiar with the stress response (also called the fight-or-flight response or sympathetic nervous system activation). The stress response is a primal response your body uses to protect itself from potential physical threats.
Let’s say you are on a hike and come across a bear on your path. Your body would trigger the stress response to prepare you in case you need to fight or flee from the bear. These are a few processes that are activated:
- Increased heart rate
- Blood diverted to muscles
- Cortisol & adrenaline released
- Stored energy made available (glycogen stores)
- Increased breathing volume (hyperventilation)
All of these processes help to prepare you for physical output. As you might have guessed, we are going to focus on the last item: “Increased breathing volume“. The following chart illustrates how your breathing would change over the course of this encounter with the bear.
Breathing Volume During a Stressful Event
In this chart, imagine you are walking along on your hike (nice and relaxed) and your breathing is calm and in the normal range of 4-6 liters per minute. But then you come across this bear [Stressful Event], your stress response is activated, and your breathing volume jumps up.
Well, as long as the bear doesn’t eat you:), one of a few things will happen: you will soon either avoid the bear, run away from the bear, or fight off the bear. Whatever the outcome, the event (or stress) is quickly resolved [Event Resolved]. Then, over the course of the next while, your breathing volume will gradually return to normal [Breathing Normalizes].
No harm done.
This is how it is supposed to work.
Back 100+ years ago, most stress was physical in nature…such as predators. These stresses were short-term, and our body’s dealt with them with no real lasting impact.
Stress Has Changed
The problem is that stress has changed. Modern stress is much more mental and much more long-term. We are constantly worried about things like work, our kids, paying the mortgage, and maybe even keeping up with the Joneses. Things that keep us up at night worrying.
The effects of modern (long-term) stress can be significant. The following chart illustrates how your breathing changes during the course of a long-term, mental stress:
Breathing Volume During a Long-Term Stressful Event
For this example, let’s use the modern workplace.
So in this case, you are sitting at your desk working. Nice and relaxed. Until your boss knocks on the door and asks if you can “chat” for a minute. Your boss then proceeds to tell you that your performance has been “sub-par” and that if you don’t turn things around, they might have to let you go.
Your mind immediately starts racing. “What if I get fired?” “How will I pay the mortgage?” “How will I put food on the table?” And so on… [Stressful Event]
This activates the stress response and your breathing volume increases. However, unlike in the case with the bear, you continue to worry about this all evening and all night…and even for the next several days [*Event Not Resolved*]. Your stress response stays activated and your breathing volume stays elevated. Well, here’s the real problem: if your breathing volume remains elevated for 24 hours, your brain adapts to this new level of breathing. This becomes your new normal [New Normal].
So, now you begin to chronically hyperventilate.
Your breathing is now elevated all of the time. So even if the stress does eventually go away (say you get a new job with a great boss), your breathing is still “stuck” at the higher volume. But it gets worse: What happens the next time a stress comes along?
Breathing Volume During a Long-Term Stressful Event #2
For this example, let’s talk about stress in the family.
Let’s say your child starts to perform poorly at school [Another Stressful Event]. You start worrying about your child’s future…and this constant worry activates your stress response. And the worrying continues for days, months, or even years [*Event Not Resolved*]. So your breathing jumps up even more to prepare you to defend yourself from physical danger. But the danger is not physical.
And, once again, if your breathing volume does not return to normal within 24 hours, your brain adapts to this new level. So over a short period of time, your breathing has gone from “normal”, to “stuck” at a higher volume—permanently.
Without understanding the effects of chronic hyperventilation on oxygen delivery to the cells of the body, this increased breathing volume may not sound like a big deal. But, any increase in breathing volume will reduce the amount of oxygen made available to the cells of the body. This is the reason that chronic hyperventilation has been shown to be at the root of over 150 different health conditions.
Breathing Retraining Is Essential For Stress Elimination
You can start to see how as modern stress has increased over that past several decades, so has the volume of air that people breathe.
This is why over 90% of people now breathe 2-3 times as much air as is considered normal. Remember the chart below from the previous post?
This process of modern stress is exactly what I went through in my own life. I went from being happy and healthy–>to super stressed–>and then to sick, tired, and grumpy—over a very short period of time. I began showing all of the classic symptoms of chronic hyperventilation: frequent sighing, frequent yawning, snoring, sleep apnea, easily winded, loud breathing, poor sleep quality (waking up tired), and many more.
This is the reason it is so important to understand how stress affects breathing. Once you understand the effects, you can manage your stress by simply managing your breathing. Mini Breath Holds is a great breathing exercise to do when you are stressed out. By normalizing your breathing volume and correcting your breathing pattern, you can undo much of the damage caused by stress. You cannot be stressed out without losing control of your breathing.