Harvard Women's Health Watch

Breath control helps quell errant stress response

Breathe in deeply to a count of four and out again slowly. There. Don't you feel calmer?

Most of us are familiar with the term "fight or flight," also known as the stress response. It's what the body does as it prepares to confront or avoid danger. The brain signals hormones that rouse us to action. Breathing quickens to take in more oxygen, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tighten, and senses sharpen. When appropriately invoked, the stress response helps us rise to many challenges. It allows us to avoid an impending accident and help rescue people in a disaster. But trouble starts when this response is constantly provoked by less momentous, day-to-day events, such as money woes, traffic jams, job worries, or relationship problems.

Health problems are one result. A prime example is high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. The stress response also suppresses the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other illnesses. Moreover, the buildup of stress can contribute to anxiety and depression. Often people try to relieve the pressure by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or develop bad habits like smoking or overeating.

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