Often clients appear in session reporting stress from daily life activities including home and family duties, interpersonal relationship problems, work related stress and stress from the lifestyle changes currently experienced with public interactions.  Some clients recognize how the stress affects them physically, which may result in interrupted sleep or inability to sleep, headaches, muscle tension in the neck and shoulders or inability to relax and remain still.  Other clients do not recognize the toll on their bodies but merely note they are frequently ill or dealing with health-related concerns.

Stress can lead to anxiety, hypertension, depression and affect the immune system. Even when clients are aware of the physical toll on their bodies from stress, it can be very difficult to reduce physical tension and attain a relaxed state.

One technique often utilized in therapy is diaphragmatic breathing.  This is the process of taking deep breaths at a measured interval, usually four to six breaths per minute. To properly utilize diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm must contract while the belly expands. Your inhalations and exhalations will deepen as well. This consequently decreases the respiration frequency and maximizes the amount of blood gases: carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Proper application of diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and stress with regular implementation of five-minute segments over several days. Research has shown that diaphragmatic breathing can reduce cortisol.  Cortisol, known as “the stress hormone” is part of the body’s “fight or flight” response.  Cortisol is released to give your body a boost of natural energy during periods of stress or anxiety.  However, if cortisol levels remain high for long periods due to chronic stress, the result could be developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Using diaphragmatic breathing when feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed, takes only seconds or moments to do and can be done almost anywhere.  Focusing on the sensation of your belly rising with inhalation and falling with exhalation, feeling the air expand your lungs then deflate and experiencing the breaths for several cycles can greatly relax your physical tension and focus your mind.  Using this method before going to bed may reduce ruminations or worries as well as relax your muscles by reducing cortisol levels.

You can find more about correct diaphragmatic breathing online.  There are multiple articles and videos with additional information and demonstrations of the technique.  The next time you feel stressed or experience muscle tension, take a few minutes, and a few breaths, and gain some much-needed relief.

Ann Hogan, LCPC