Releasing Tension with Breath
The link between states of tension or relaxation and the rate and depth of breathing is clear. Whether sensing danger from external stressors or from disturbing thoughts within, the body reacts to protect itself. The instinctive response has been called the fight, flight, or freeze" mechanism. First described by Hans Selye, MD, one of the leading authorities on stress, this mechanism involves a whole range of automatic reactions. These serve to energize the body to do battle or to run away, whichever seems right at the moment. A surge of adrenaline raises blood pressure and increases heart rate, blood flow to muscles, and general metabolism. The rate of breathing becomes faster, more shallow, and arrhythmic.
There are other measurable changes that characterize the fight-or-flight response. Some very tense individuals commonly have hand and foot temperatures below 70°F/21°C when they are in a room-temperature environment. (And despite the old saying, cold hands have nothing to do with warm hearts.) Palms and fingers may become moist with small amounts of perspiration released by the adrenaline discharge. Such clammy hands are another sign of chronic tension. Similarly, muscle tension increases throughout the body; this may show up as morning stiffness or excessive facial wrinkles. These wrinkles are caused by the constant stretching and bunching up of skin due to overactivity of the underlying musculature. If you notice any of these symptoms with regularity, you can be sure your body is aroused excessively - and unnecessarily.
As an occasional and temporary condition, this "alarm" state serves the whole organism well, but when it characterizes your general approach to living, you sap huge energy reserves that are needed for other purposes. Sooner or later the results will show up in some destructive way, in the body as well as in the spirit. Selye has indicated that stress plays some role in the development of every disease. The constructive, conscious use of the breath can break this pattern of stress as a way of life.
Stress is not all bad. It is, in fact, a necessary component of most life situations. Death is the only stress-free condition. For example, a tensionless state - the limp handshake - is far from desirable. But equally discomforting is the tight, rigid grasp. What we're looking for is a balance between these extremes - the firm yet relaxed handshake; the supportive yet gentle embrace. This happy combination is seen in the performance of the dancer and the movements of the accomplished skier, and heard in the music of the masterful pianist.
The problem is, most of the time we fall far short of this ideal state of relaxed tension. We use excessive amounts of energy in striving for perfect form. The result is often loss of balance, early fatigue, and accidents. Many of us live an uptight existence, absorbed in and surrounded by anxiety-producing situations. We end up with headaches and stomach problems. We can begin releasing this vise-grip approach to life by paying conscious attention to our breathing.