Holiday Stress? Slow Down and Take a BREATH!

By Dr. Anne Zauderer

The holidays are a joyous time to spend with friends and family. Unfortunately, with holiday parties, shopping and travel, this season can easily turn into a time of stress. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that 8 out of 10 Americans anticipate stress during the holiday season. Increased stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and drinking, reduced amounts of sleep, and over-spending money.

What if you had a quick, easy way to reduce your stress? And the best news is … it’s FREE! It’s simple: slow down and take some deep breaths.

Let’s look at how our nervous system works and why we respond the way we do when we get “stressed out.” When we encounter stressful situations, our bodies unconsciously respond by going into action: our heart rate goes up, breathing rate increases, our immune system is suppressed, our palms get sweaty, our pupils dilate to let in more light, our digestion decreases, and our body prepares to “fight or flight”. All of these responses are a result of the sympathetic nervous system and are meant to be a short-term coping strategy to get us through the period of stress. The counter-regulatory system is the parasympathetic nervous system. This division of our nervous system is responsible for reducing stress. When it is activated, digestion and gastric secretions increase, heart rate slows down, sexual arousal increases, and our immune system increases resistant to infection. It induces a period of rest and rebuilding within the body. We should be spending most of our time in a “parasympathetic state” where we are more at rest; however, a majority of us spend our time in a “sympathetic state,” which is one of stress. How do we reverse this trend?

BREATHING! Breathing is necessary for life. A person can live months without food, about a week without water, but we would not survive even 5 minutes without oxygen. Breathing is so important that it is mostly controlled by our autonomic or “automatic” nervous system. Therefore, the brain can control our breathing so that we don’t have to consciously think about it. However, one thing that is unique to breathing is we have to use our muscles to initiate breathing. Our muscles are controlled by the somatic nervous system, which is under voluntary control. So breathing is one of the few actions within the body that can be voluntary or involuntary.

When we do deep breathing exercises, we are voluntarily controlling our breath, but by deep breathing and slowing down our breath, we are inducing the body into a “parasympathetic state.” As we discussed above, this encourages a state of rest, relaxation, and rebuilding within the body and helps counteract the effects of stress. Studies have shown that regular deep breathing exercises can be beneficial for pain2, mood processing2, stress and anxiety3, and asthma4.

It is important to focus on the breath coming from deep in our belly. The more stressed we get, the more we use our secondary muscles of respiration, which are located in the front of the neck. As these muscles take over, the breath gets shallower and we get less oxygen with each breath. Less oxygen when we breathe means less oxygen to our brain and all of our other organs.

Try it out for yourself!

  1. Lie down on your back and put your hand on your belly.
  2. Take a deep breath in through your nose while counting to five. You should feel your hand on your belly rise up if you are using your diaphragm to breathe deeply.
  3. Hold the breath while you count to five.
  4. Slowly start to exhale through your mouth (with your lips pursed together) while counting to ten.
  5. Repeat this process five times.

As you get better at belly breathing start to incorporate this exercise throughout the day. So relax, breathe, and enjoy your holiday season!

2. Busch V, Magerl W, Kern U, Haas J, Hajak G, Eichhammer P. The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing–an experimental study. Pain Med. 2012 Feb;13(2):215-28.
3. Paul G, Elam B, Verhulst SJ. A longitudinal study of students’ perceptions of using deep breathing meditation to reduce testing stresses.Teach Learn Med. 2007 Summer;19(3):287-92.
4. Saxena T, Saxena M.The effect of various breathing exercises (pranayama) in patients with bronchial asthma of mild to moderate severity. Int J Yoga. 2009 Jan;2(1):22-5.