One of the simplest ways to alleviate our stress is to learn abdominal breathing. The diaphragm is one of the largest muscles in the body, and when it is drawn downwards and flattened, it pulls air into the whole of the lungs. The diaphragm divides the thoracic cavity (containing the heart and lungs) from the abdominal cavity (containing the liver, pancreas, intestines etc). When it contracts, it pushes the contents of the abdomen downwards, making it feel as if we are ‘breathing into the belly’. The abdomen expands outwards, like a balloon, in front, from side to side and at the back, pressing against the sacrum.
When we are stressed or anxious, we often find ourselves taking short breaths, high up in the chest. This has the effect of signalling to the body that we are under threat and it sets up a vicious cycle. Even if a threat is imagined, the physiological response is the same. The endocrine system produces hormones (such as cortisol) which draw blood away from the digestive system, to the extremities, ready to fight or flee. These physical responses produce an emotional response, a sense of fear or anxiety, which then reinforces the physiological response. We get caught in the cycle of threat.
When we are relaxed, the body will naturally shift to a slower, deeper breath, and this allows the parasympathetic nervous system to carry out its digestive and elimination processes – we talk of the ‘rest and digest’ system. This parasympathetic nervous system also triggers emotional feelings of connectedness, safety and contentment, sometimes called the ‘tend and befriend’ response that is unique to mammals.