Deep Breathing and Floating Help Us Combat Stress
It’s no secret that today’s world is a fast-paced and dynamic one; a world that asks us to always be achieving, striving, and competing. A 2017 study on stress in America done by the American Psychological Association shows that there has been a statistically significant increase in Americans’ stress levels for the first time since 2007, when the study was first conducted.
The main source of Americans’ stress remains financial, but some new and not-so-surprising culprits are pushing us to new levels. Whether it’s the current political climate, which more than half of Americans (57 percent) cited as a significant or somewhat significant stress factor, or even our increased dependency on the internet, with 8 in 10 Americans constantly glued to their gadgets on a typical day (86 percent say they constantly or often check their emails, texts and social media accounts), we are more stressed-out than ever before.
So how can we slow things down and connect with the physical reality of the world around us? The answer, in part, is as simple as it is complex: just breathe!
What Happens Physiologically When We Experience Stress
The fear center of our brain is called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for keeping us safe; as soon as our hypothalamus senses stress, it tells our sympathetic nervous system to initiate fight-or-flight, a process wherein our body makes all the physiological changes needed to run from a bear or survive a shipwreck, for example. This response to stressful situations is part of what has helped humans to survive and thrive. Today, however, thanks to technology and industry, most people won’t find themselves face-to-face with a predator. More realistically, our hypothalamus is triggered as we try to find the best way to navigate a political conversation, ask for a promotion, or ignore negative Facebook posts.
The fight-or-flight response is our bodies’ way of responding to our stress in the short term. Here is a breakdown of what happens once we trigger our hypothalamus:
- Increase in stress hormones
- Increase in blood pressure
- Inhibits Insulin, releasing sugars into the bloodstream
- Inhibits the uptake of amino acids into the muscle cells
- Inhibits bone formation and decreases calcium absorption in the intestine
- Decrease in Immune Function
- Decrease in Digestive Function
- Decrease in Reproductive Function
- Decrease in Detoxification Function
When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our sympathetic nervous systems release two powerful stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares your body for sudden action by elevating your blood pressure, increasing your breathing pattern to shallow and fast breaths, and releasing sugars into the bloodstream, all of which will help you think and move faster. Cortisol works by shutting down all of the unnecessary functions to deal with the immediate stress on hand. That means that while you sit nervously in a traffic jam before a big day at work, for example, your immune, digestive, reproductive, and detoxification functions are impaired.
Adrenaline and cortisol help us to manage stresses in the short term, but they are not designed to be a part of our daily lives. When these stressful situation are occurring at a near-constant and daily rate, as they do for many, many individuals, it can create a long list of symptoms. For example, here are some long term responses to chronic stress:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
How Does Floatation Therapy Decrease Stress?
Floating has been clinically shown to reduce perceived stress along with the stress hormone cortisol. While there are multiple theories about how floating reduces stress, most studies find that floating decreases the activity level of the brain’s hypothalamus, therefore decreasing the fight-or-flight response, calming the sympathetic nervous system, and providing a reduction in cortisol production. This allows our parasympathetic nervous system a chance to take over, and giving normal balanced function to our other bodily systems once more. This can raise energy levels and give us an overall sense of well-being, mindfulness, and relaxation. A study following the ways that floating and stress interact, conducted by researchers at Lawrence University, concluded with this statement: “This decrease in [hypothalamus] activation [after a float session] can foster a shift of attention toward an internal mode of consciousness conducive to meditation and relaxation.”
How Does Deep Breathing Decrease Stress?
Short, shallow breaths are synonymous with the fight-or-flight state. This is why we are so often advised to “take a few deep breaths” before making important decisions or tackling a big project. Deep breathing calms our the sympathetic nervous system; it gives us a chance to relax, to rest and to digest.
Slow, deep breathing techniques trigger the vagus nerve, one of the most important nerves in the rest-and-digest mode. Here are some other benefits of deep breathing:
- Signals the brain to release the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and reduces anxiety.
- Lowers blood pressure and cortisol.
- Reduces excess carbon dioxide in your body, which can lead to oxidative stress, and inflammation.
- Increases oxygen saturation in your tissues.
A float pool is the optimal environment to practice breath-work. As Seattle-based breathing specialist Kimberly Shay says: “Floating allows the thinking-mind, aka the “monkey mind”, to take a rest, and enhances breath and body connection.”
How to Practice Deep Breathing While Floating:
1. Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. This will help you become more mindful of how your thoughts affect your breath and heart rate, which will be at an already heightened state from the sensory reduction during your float.
2. While your body is suspended in epsom-salt water you’ll notice where you’re holding tension much more than usual. Try and let the muscles release with each breath. Your body will also naturally release muscle-tension during your float, and your nervous system will shift into a parasympathetic state.
3. Inhale deeply, through your belly, counting slowly to five. Notice how your ribcage can expand more while floating, allowing you to take a deeper breath than usual.
4. Exhale deeply, counting slowly to seven, making sure you completely empty your lungs.
5. Continue to inhale and exhale deeply like this for several minutes.
Tips & Tricks:
- Notice how your body elevates as your lungs expand and filk with oxygen. Notice, too, how you sink as you slowly exhale as much air as possible. You can use this a a tool. As your lung capacity grows you will notice you’ll elevate higher and sink lower.
- Hold the air in your lungs for five seconds between each breath. This will increase oxygen saturation.
- The next time you notice yourself feeling stressed in a low stress environment, simply recognize the thought that you’re having and take five deep breaths. See if your heart rate has slowed and your mindset has improved after deep breathing.
- Dr. Sage Wheeler, ND says: “When you inhale, your sympathetic tone increases; when you exhale, it decreases. Studies on deep breathing techniques have shown training your exhalation to last longer than inhalation results in achieving relaxation faster”.
1. Jacobs, Greg, Robert Heilbronner, and John M. Stanley. “The Effects of Short – Term Floatation REST on Relaxation: A Controlled Study, “Paper delivered at First International Conference on REST and Self-Regulation, Denver Colorado, March 18, 1983
James Kilgallon, CSCS
James is a CSCS certified strength coach, avid floater, and passionate about optimizing human potential.