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Well Being: Deep breathing 101: how to manage stress

July 9, 2019
By Dr. Elias Markou

With a firefighter lifestyle, there are many ways that stress can affect one’s life. In my many years of private practice, I have come to believe that stress truly is the silent killer. One stressful event will not kill you. It is the compounding effects of many years and many stressful situations that eventually overtakes the mind, body and spirit in a negative way.

Inside our body during a stressful situation there are very elaborate chemical and hormonal reactions that occur. Stress can create an irreversible damaging environment that often leads to chronic illness and disease.

There are very few tools that can help you combat stress and its effect on your body. On one hand, I can count the tools that can help you manage stress and the damaging results of stress.

The five things that can help you with your stress are deep breathing, prayer/meditation, regular exercise, yoga/stretching, and quality sleep. Breathing correctly and using your breath in a strategic way is the cheapest, simplest and most impactful technique for improving your health and your stress.

Peace activist and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, would say, “When you feel the stress coming, turn your focus to your breath.”

A high level of health can not be achieved without proper breathing. Breathing has many important physiological benefits that are known to regulate the nervous system, the heart and circulatory system, digestion, and hormonal system. Breathwork is also known to influence and bridge body between the physical body with the conscious mind.

When we have stress and anxiety and feel depressed, our breathing becomes shallow, rapid and irregular. This kind of breathing has a negative influence on all of our physiological systems, resulting in poor health in the long run.

Breath control affects every system connected to health. It can lower blood pressure, oxygenate the brain and muscles, balance hormones, increase blood circulation of all parts of the body and relax the nervous system. Regular deep breathing can decrease stress, decrease anxiety, increase energy, and improve sleep and memory. A 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychologyshowed how breathwork in adults significantly reduced the negative physiological effects of stress on the body.

Following are some very common techniques for proper breathing:

Slow Down Your Breathing: When you are stopped at a red light, waiting in a line at the bank or just have a minute to spare in your day, take a minute and practise taking a series of breaths that are deep, slow and more regular with a consistent rhythm. This style of breathing is more efficient and can deliver 100 per cent more oxygen to your lungs and into your cells, resulting in a balanced nervous system.

Breathe into Your Lower Abdomen: When you breathe in you should be able to feel and see the full expansion of your lower abdomen or belly and not see the expansion of your chest. Breathing into your belly over time will increase the strength of the muscles involved in breathing. Breathe in for five seconds, hold your breath for three seconds and release the breath over five seconds.

Lengthen Your Exhalation: There are many firefighters that are actively trying to increase their V02 max, a parameter often used for firefighter testing. Many firefighters will run for hours on a treadmill to achieve a competitive VO2 max. Did you know that you can increase your VO2 max simply by deep breathing? Respiration is deepened by actively exhaling more air out of your lungs, not by inhaling more air into your lungs. Pushing more air out of your lungs trigger the lungs and the brain to take in more air, resulting over time in a higher VO2 max.

Here are a few breathing techniques to improve your health. When the exhalation is longer than the inhalation, your body has a tendency of releasing more stress and toxins via your breath. This can also help you sleep better, decrease your anxiety and even help reduce physical pain and discomfort in the body.

Remember Thich’s most famous Buddhist prayer about breathing when all else fails in your road to health recovery. Just repeat, “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”


Dr. Elias Markou is one very busy naturopathic doctor. He is in private practice in Mississauga, Ont., and is the chief medical officer for the Halton Hills Fire Department. Dr. Markou was a firefighter for six years; he is a firefighter health expert and blogger who is regularly featured on television and radio and in print. Contact him at drmarkou@mypurebalance.ca.


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