Effect of Stress on the Respiratory System


Lesson objective:

We cover in this lesson the effects of stress on the respiratory system. During hyperactivity and prolonged release of stress hormones, how is our respiratory system affected? How do we use our respiratory system to reverse these effects?

As mentioned earlier, hyperarousal and chronic stress affect many different systems in the body.  

Now let’s talk about the lungs, about the respiratory system. 

Hyperarousal, or the sustained release of stress hormones affect your respiratory system

To confront a stress or threat, you need a boost of energy, as we discussed earlier when considering fight, flight, and freeze responses, and when discussing the “accelerator” functions of the sympathetic nervous system. 

To get a boost of energy, you need fresh and extra oxygen to be distributed through your blood, so that your organs and muscles are fully equipped to respond to dangers. 

In other words, in order to fight or to run, you need more oxygen. 

To get more oxygen into the blood, you need an increased supply of oxygen, and oxygen is supplied through the lungs.

 Simply, to confront stress or threat, you need more air. 

You need to breathe faster. 

As discussed before, stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system together signal to the lungs to breathe faster and shallower, getting oxygen through the body as fast as possible. 

The act of taking fast and shallow breaths can be useful for a short while, as it may allow you to xx. 

If this style of fast, shallow breathing continues over a long period of time, it carries some risks. 

Fast, shallow breathing can complicate pre-existing conditions like asthma, but can also facilitate panic attacks, hyperventilation, or feelings of anxiety.

Under stress, you might notice–or even unconsciously–breathe like someone intensely focused, or like someone who has been walking for a little too long. Shallow breathing is a very common effect of chronic stress. 

We have discussed at length how the brain signals to the body. However, we also mentioned that the body gives feedback signs and signals to the brain too. 

The body and brain exist in a communication or feedback loop, and the brain engages in signal detection, whereby it notices, understands, and coordinates with the rest of the body for specific actions in response to a detected signal. 

Sometimes, something happening in the body signals an alert to the brain. For example, your brain interprets rapid, shallow breaths as a danger signal. 

Basically, when your body is breathing as if under stress, your brain is receiving signals that it is in danger, thus creating a feedback loop of short, shallow breathing. 

Simply, stress can shorten breath, and shortened breath signals further danger. 

In this cycle, some people may lose control over their breathing, causing hyperventilation, which is when an individual loses control of the breath and begins to breathe very fast. Hyperventilation can exaggerate existing feelings of threat or anxiety, creating a risky cycle. 

To a certain extent, we can regain control over our breath and breathe more deliberately and deeply in times of stress.