Dear Stress, Let’s Break Up…
The life of an average American is extremely stressful – this is a fact established by various surveys. In one such survey, published by the American Psychological Association in 2010, called Stress in America, the psychologist Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA’s chief executive officer said: “Year after year, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy”. Stress is hurting our physical and emotional health and contributing to some of the leading causes of death in this country.
But what is stress? Even though it feels so real, isn’t it just our perception followed by a physiological reaction? I remember that when I was younger, my mother-in-law, use to make negative comments, which I would perceive as if a knife was piercing my heart. Several years later, after I had divorced my first husband, I visited her again: she started making the same comments but this time, they just made me laugh. What makes us perceive identical situations as nerve-racking or funny?
According to Dr. Novozhilov, the level of carbon dioxide in one’s lungs acts as a regulator for the level of excitability of nerve cells. Doctors are aware of this fact and often use a brown paper bag to calm someone down. When a person breathes in and out of the paper bag, the atmosphere inside the bag becomes CO2 enriched and consequently, the level of CO2 in the lungs rises.
The less CO2 we have, the more emotionally fragile we are. People whose Positive Maximum Pause is low often cry or have to suppress their emotions; they also become victims of their fears and anxieties. Breathing reduction, on the other hand, increases the level of CO2 and lessens the excitability of nerve cells shielding us from stress. In other words, by controlling our breathing, we can control the level of stress in our lives.
When my husband, Thomas’ PMP was three seconds and mine was ten, we often had arguments. Even though we dearly loved each other and wanted to have peace at home, our conversations would often end up as heated discussions. When our PMPs became significantly higher, our family dynamic changed and our relationship became more harmonious. I remember one day I wrote a ‘thank you’ letter to Dr. Novozhilov telling him I’m grateful to him for my renewed husband – I like Thomas more than I used to!
Hyperventilation and stress are colleagues working towards the common goal of making us ill. Hyperventilation has us perceiving our life as stressful and stress makes us breathe deeper. When we yield to it, we start losing more carbon dioxide, which increases the excitability of the nerve cells making us apprehensive. As a result, we feel stressed and develop a tendency to hyperventilate. A vicious circle!
Stress is always associated with the fight-or-flight response, followed by deep mouth breathing. When an animal is in a life-threatening situation, physical action is required in order to survive. At this moment, its body offers all available resources â€“ just as civilians do in order to support soldiers fighting a war. The vital supply of carbon dioxide, stored in the lungs, also becomes available. Nevertheless, it does not get drained since metabolism is actively working (because the animal is battling or running away), producing plenty of carbon dioxide. With people, the problem comes when, instead of being physically active to overcome stress, they eat, watch TV, or call a friend. They end up sitting on a couch (when metabolism produces minimum CO2), breathing as if they were running (when the body loses maximum CO2).
What is the way out? Breathing awareness helps and yet it is easy to forget about it when you are stressed out. These situations often require additional support; as such we recommend using an awareness belt. A belt is a tool, which helps to increase awareness about breathing and is therefore very valuable. It is helpful for people who hyperventilate terribly, for those whose air consumption is mild, and even those who have won the battle against hyperventilation. In the second part of his life, Dr. Buteyko belonged to the last category, and yet he would often tie a wide leather belt around his torso.
Dr. Buteyko discovered that a belt, when placed around the diaphragm, contributes to preventing hyperventilation and making a person breathe less. When less air is consumed, the lungs accumulate more carbon dioxide and a person’s organs, including the brain, receive more oxygen (this phenomenon is called Bohr Effect). Because of the increased delivery of oxygen, a person functions both physically and mentally at a much higher level: becomes calmer and stronger and less influenced by fears and emotions.
Konstantin Buteyko did not invent this device; in fact, the belt was in use by many erstwhile cultures. For example, Buddhist monks, Karate fighters, pirates and musketeers tied belts around their diaphragms. Once, I saw drawings of military uniforms, which were used in Russia in the 18th century. Most of them contained characters’ tight belts that sit high up on the trunk of the bodies. At that time, soldiers had to be active to survive: one would think a belt would limit their abilities to run, ride, and fight but, in reality, the belts, aside from their primary usage, helped them be fearless, stay focused and pursue their goals.
The belt has many applications. One of them is to support good posture. A straight and strong back is essential for good breathing; when a person straightens his back, his breathing automatically reduces. The opposite is also true: a person who spends most of his day with a hunched back has a tendency to breathe more or deeper. If you put a belt around the area below your ribs, you will notice that you do not feel the belt when your back is straight. As soon as your back is bent, the belt becomes uncomfortable to the point of being almost painful. This will force you to correct your posture. A belt is an exceptional tool, especially for people who have to spend most of the day in an office chair.
Another application of the belt is to alarm us when we start breathing deeply. Any strong emotion, good or bad, usually makes us breathe deeper; however, most of the time we are not aware of those moments. I remember a situation when I needed to pay a visit to my lawyer: it was nothing serious but I was anticipating a discussion about a rather unpleasant issue related to my real estate. Fortunately, my belt was hiding under my blouse. As soon as I stepped into the attorney’s office I felt my belt, which suddenly became uncomfortable. What happened? Apparently, I felt slightly anxious and this triggered hyperventilation. Deep breathing made my stomach move out and the belt became too tight. After noticing this, I modified my breathing. Without the Awareness Belt, I would have hyperventilated throughout the whole meeting, which would have been quite harmful to my health.
Emotions make us breathe more but over-breathing makes us emotional: the belt can stop this. Once, I was expecting an important phone call from my colleague, who was upset about business-related matters. He wanted me to take his side; however, my perspective was different. I knew the conversation was not going to be easy, so I put on my Awareness Belt. The discussion took about an hour, during which I was able to stay calm and express my position clearly. My husband, who was listening, was amazed by my self-control. I believe this was possible since the belt did not allow me to over-breathe and slip into the familiar world of emotions, stress, and hyperventilation.
There are two ways to wear the belt: when it just slightly touches or when it fits snugly around the area of the diaphragm. So far, we’ve mostly discussed the first approach; now let’s talk about the second.
I remember one of our first meetings with Ludmila Buteyko in Moscow when Thomas was receiving his treatment. There is no healthy breathing without relaxation, Ludmila taught us. If your diaphragm is tense, your breathing will be heavy, she explained. If you relax it, you will switch into shallower breathing. Most people cannot relax their diaphragm, just like they cannot slow their heartbeat. Ludmila left her office chair to demonstrate the difference between a relaxed and tense diaphragm. She asked Thomas, and then me, to put a hand on the upper part of her stomach, to feel those two states. The distinction between them was significant.
Is my diaphragm tense? I kept thinking after this meeting. Since I’ve never even felt my diaphragm, it must be very relaxed, I concluded. This illusion dissolved after I slightly tightened up the belt on my stomach. Right away, I not only felt the area in between my ribs but intense tension as well. Was my diaphragm tense all my life? I could only guess that the answer was Yes, even though I used to think of myself as a rather relaxed person. I continued wearing the belt every so often for the next couple of days even though it felt like my diaphragm was fighting against it.
Then something happened: it felt as if my diaphragm suddenly gave up, stopped battling and relaxed. My breathing changed and my Control Pause rose. My automatic pause (this is the time naturally occurring between inhalation and exhalation) became worryingly long. I remember sitting in a chair and observing the natural patterns of my breathing. Gentle inhalation, exhalation, and thenâ€¦ nothing. I am supposed to breathe, am I not? I kept thinking. After several seconds, I finally inhaled again. I was feeling great and yet it was somewhat scary that my natural inhalation would come after a long pause.
Dr. Buteyko taught that this is a pattern of healthy breathing. Most people inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale – there is no break in between. Over-breathing became so common, that we consider it normal. If you observe the breathing patterns of wild animals, you notice an automatic pause occurring between exhalation and inhalation. Buteyko stated that humans are supposed to breathe this way as well. The belt helped me develop this natural pattern.
It is important to know that the belt is not suitable for everyone. For example, Ludmila Buteyko never wears it. She explained that for her, as a former asthmatic, the belt creates a restraint, which is associated with a feeling of suffocation she used to experience. Her awareness of her breathing is very high and this allows her to retain her breathing without using a belt.
Similar to Ludmila, some people suffering from asthma or breathing difficulties don’t feel safe using the belt. If you’re uncomfortable wearing a belt, please be careful. I suggest gently trying the belt in the presence of someone else. If that feels okay, then try to keep the belt on, but for no longer than fifteen minutes. The belt should be almost loose, only slightly touching your skin. When and if you feel comfortable with the belt, you can slowly increase the time you wear it.
For some people, it takes up to a year before they become comfortable wearing a belt. If you decide to start wearing it right away, please be careful and use common sense! If you have a problem with it, please take it off immediately. If you have any questions or concerns, then contacting or working with a Buteyko Breathing Method specialist would be the best choice. Also, don’t try to wear a belt if your chest or shoulders move when you breathe. And, of course, never breathe through your mouth whether you are wearing your belt or not!
Dr. Buteyko would often say: Hyperventilation hides in ambush; the belt is your protection. The tendency to over-breathe is always present, not only due to stress but also because our current atmosphere is different than the original one. Old cultures were more aware of this effect than our civilization. Remember the old tradition of swaddling a newborn? In many cultures, people believed that a baby who is swaddled tightly is calmer and eventually becomes a stronger person. Considering Dr. Buteyko’s revelation, these beliefs make sense: a baby whose breathing is slightly restricted is less affected by the sudden shock created by the difference in gas proportions in the mother’s womb and the outside world. A swaddled baby is pushed to breathe less, which means that their lungs accumulate more carbon dioxide â€“ this has a calming effect. Besides, the baby’s organs receive plenty of oxygen, and as a result, the child has a higher probability of becoming an emotionally stronger adult. The same commonsense motivated people to put a cover around an infant’s bed, which would slightly modify the environment, creating an atmosphere with a higher percentage of carbon dioxide.
Of course, those traditions are different compared to the modern custom of welcoming babies into the world by slapping them on their butts to make them cry hard, which stimulates heavy mouth breathing. So, modern people, for example, Americans, receive their first training on hyperventilation within the first few minutes of their lives! No wonder Americans die from stress: they are born into it!