Just Breathe…

by Samy Shash

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about breathing. Maybe you, like myself, have come across a multitude of articles telling us we don’t know how to “breathe properly”. While I appreciate the intention behind those articles, today’s blog post isn’t going to be a step-by-step walkthrough on learning how to activate your diaphragm, breathe through specific nostrils or anything complicated like that. Today’s post is about a deeper question: why is it that focusing on our breathing helps us manage stress?

2020 has been anxiety-inducing for more reasons than I can fit into this post, so understanding how we can use breathing to our advantage can benefit just about anybody. Research shows that when we are in a state of stress, it is difficult to regain control over our emotions, thoughts and actions due to changes in how the prefrontal cortex in our brain is engaged. Long-term, this can literally change how our brain and nervous system function. And since the brain has so much to do with how we process the experience of pain, gaining control over our stress can be a powerful complement to any physical therapy intervention.

When we are stressed, our breathing tends to become shallower and more rapid, activating the sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for our innate fight-or-flight mechanism. When we slow our breathing, we active the parasympathetic system – which is responsible for our innate “rest and digest” mechanism.

How can we use a structured technique to take control of our breathing when stressed? One such technique is called box breathing. This strategy originates from an ancient Yoga practice known as Sama Vritti Pranayama, which means “equanimity”, “whirlpool” and “breath control” in Sanskrit. It was also recently popularized by former U.S. Navy SEAL Mark Divine, who used it to keep his special ops team calm under pressure. Try the steps below right now and add this to your stress management toolbox. All you must do is close your eyes and envision the box drawn below:

Follow the arrows around the box until you’re thinking about nothing but your breathing. It’s remarkable how quickly a few minutes of this can shift your mind off some of your daily stressors! While this is no substitute to a fully structured stress management plan with a professional, this is a quick and easy strategy that can be used by anyone in a pinch. Control your stress, and gain mastery over your pain.

Samy Shash

Samy Shash


Samy is a registered physiotherapist at Synergy, working at both the east and west end locations. He treats a wide variety of conditions including athletic injuries, aches and pains from working at home, and weekend warriors. He holds a Master of Science in Physiotherapy from McMaster University and a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from York University. If you have any specific questions for Samy he can be reached at [email protected], and to book online click HERE for the east end, or HERE for the west end.

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