3 steps to retrain your breathing to handle stress

In General by Adam Friedman

Do you find yourself panting or light headed right after doing a challenging exercise?

If so, don’t rush to judgement in thinking that your cardiovascular conditioning is to blame.

There’s a good chance that you’ve unwittingly conditioned yourself to hold your breath under high stress.

The clear lack of oxygen exchange leaves your muscles and brain starving for fuel.

But what is not so obvious is that a primitive self preservation reflex can trigger an interruption in your breathing. 

A what?!

Fight or Flight

A self-preservation reflex is a “fight or flight” response from your sympathetic nervous system.

It happens when your nervous system anticipates that you’re about to lose control… or senses that you have lost control.

Either way, on a primal level, it perceives a threat to your existence.

Though unlikely, this deep rooted response that dates beyond our caveman days.

The unnecessary aftermath is misdirected: 

  • Muscular tension
  • Premature fatigue
  • And dizziness

This trifecta of symptoms makes it difficult to progress AND can feel discouraging.

That’s because the more frequent that you repeat this incorrect pattern under high stress… the longer it perpetuates dysfunction.

The answer is not to avoid challenging your outer limits.

After all, pushing your boundaries is what your body needs to stimulate change.

Instead, re-educate your breathing while under mild stress.

3-steps to correct your breathing for stress

  1. Build your general breath awareness.

Notice throughout the day if you’re holding your breath in any stressful situation (work or personal).

Then make the mindful choice to inhale and exhale until your breathing returns to normal.

  1. Practice proper breathing mechanics to learn how to have deliberate diaphragmatic breathing.

That is what will help to:

    • Keep your core recruited properly.
    • Have better efficiency in your lung capacity.

An excellent breathing exercise to start with is Crocodile Breathing. Do this for 10 breath cycles in the morning and before you train.

Then, after you train, reset your exercise breathing pattern so you can transition to a parasympathetic nervous system (“rest & digest”) state. Do this for 3-5 minutes.

  1. Use resistance exercises that you can manage with no more than a 4-5/10 effort.

Core stability or mobility exercises are excellent opportunities to work on this.

At any point in the exercise that the internal or external resistance is the highest… forcibly inhale or exhale from your belly to keep your breath moving.

A Half-kneeling Pallof Press is a good example of this concept.

This diaphragmatic breathing will cue your core to stabilize in the right way to keep your movement dynamic.

Once your breathing is correct, your oxygen exchange can meet your energy system demands for your brain and muscle tissue.

Of equal importance, it will give your nervous system reassurance that you are in control. This gives your body the green light signal to continue on.

Once you’ve practiced conditioning your breathing under mild stress, then you can add more challenging exercises.

In summary, breathe as you move through stressful situations…in the gym and throughout life.

And remember to stay athletic.

Your coach,