When mentally or emotionally stressed people tend to either hold their breath, or breathe using the abdomen and the chest. This creates physical tension and pain that reinforces our mental and emotional stress, and reduces the amount of oxygen that is available to the brain due to more shallow breathing. Because the brain prioritizes lower brain structures necessary for survival, the frontal lobes which are in charge of executive functioning are the first parts of the brain to be deprived of oxygen. As a result, in stressful situations where we need all of our resources to make good decisions, the front of our brain is offline and we behave inappropriately or make poor decisions.
Diaphragmatic breathing when under stress helps to optimize brain function. A common diaphragmatic breathing exercise is as follow;
- Sit or lie comfortably, with loose garments.
- Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
- Slowly inhale through your nose or through pursed lips (to slow down the intake of breath).
- As you inhale, feel your stomach expand with your hand. If your chest expands, focus on breathing with your diaphragm, located under your sternum.
- Slowly exhale through pursed lips to regulate the release of air.
- Rest and repeat.
Remember that your brain requires twenty percent of the oxygen and calories that your body needs, even though your brain only makes up two percent of your total body weight!