1. Health
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Managing Acute Stress: Diaphragmatic Breathing


Updated November 21, 2003

We all seem to know what stress is.  Some have defined it as "the demands of life" - but these demands of life are actually stressors.  Stress is the effect that these demands have on our mind/body.

Acute stress affects the autonomic nervous system.  Heart rate increases, pupils dilate, blood rushes toward large muscles and away from the fingers and toes.   Muscles can tighten and adrenaline and cortisol are released into the blood stream.   These reactions are all part of the "fight-or-flight" response.  Our bodies are becoming prepared to fight or to run.

You can even see this response in animals.  Watch two dogs who are unfriendly facing-off.  You'll see them extremely excited; and you'll see them teeter back and forth between the instinct to fight and the instinct to run.  This response was handy for cave men and the early settlers of North America.  It also comes in handy in combat.  We need our bodies to prepare us to fight or run.

The fight-or-flight response is not helpful in a job interview; yet our bodies still respond that way to stress.  There's nobody to fight and nowhere to run.  We're just left with fast breathing, a racing heart, perspiration, and a feeling of anxiety.   It's the same way in a final exam.  People often feel up and motivated going into an exam, only to get stressed-out into the exam.  Test-anxiety often involves the fight-or-flight kicking in.  Memory retrieval is impaired, and performance suffers.

There are some fairly simple ways to begin to manage the stress in your life.   I've put together a list of Stress Management Resources from throughout the Web.   I've visited these sites and I believe that they offer sound information and techniques.   Here's a technique which you may find helpful:

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

This technique consists of taking three slow breaths to slow things down. Count silently and slowly to three when you breathe in (through your nose and push your stomach out rather than your chest.  This allows you to breathe with your diaphragm and to get a deeper breath. Breathe out on a slow count of six - through your mouth.

The rhythm goes like this:

Breathe in........1............2............3

Breathe out........1............2............3.............4.............5...........6

Repeat two more times

Be sure that you pace your breath so that you have some breath left by the time you get to six.  If you feel light-headed, then just slow it down a bit.

Practice this several times each day and you will then have it available in a stressful situation.  This simple technique can slow and even stop the fight-or-flight response.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.

We comply with the HONcode standard
for trustworthy health
information: verify here.