Take Deep Breaths to Lower Your Stress (Va'eira 5780)
In this week’s parsha, parshat Va’eira, we encounter a unique and peculiar phrase:
.ויְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
Moshe said these words to the Children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moshe
because of their shortness of breath and because of their hard labor.
When Moshe tells the Children of Israel that God will redeem them and take them out of Egypt, the Torah says that they did not listen to him because of their קֹּצֶר רוּחַ - their shortness of breath. Rashi picks up on this unusual language and explains as follows:
מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ. כל מי שהוא מצר, רוחו ונשימתו קצרה, ואינו יכול להאריך בנשימתו.
Anyone who is in distress experiences shortness of breath and cannot breathe
deeply. (Rashi, Shemot 6:9)
Apparently, due to the extreme hardship and distress of the Jewish nation, they experienced respiratory problems and this prevented them from connecting to God’s message of freedom. While this minor phrase does not change our understanding of the overall narrative a great deal, the verse and Rashi’s subsequent explanation draws us in to an important psychological concept: the fight or flight response.
Human beings are blessed with an ‘emergency mode’ to better our chances of survival when we face a life or death situation. When our minds sense that we are in great danger, our body triggers a series of physiological processes known as the fight or flight response. Our sympathetic nervous system takes over and our body acts differently to prepare us to either fight our way through danger or run away to safety, whichever is more effective. For example, our heart beats faster to pump more blood to our muscles, and our digestive system shuts down so that we don’t need to take any bathroom breaks.
Another important change in the fight or flight response is that our breathing becomes quicker and shallower. This type of breathing is more helpful in dangerous situations and is therefore an adaptive process. However, the problem arises when we activate our bodies ‘emergency mode’ more frequently, and unnecessarily.
Excessive anxiety can be thought of as an over-sensitive alarm. When someone suffers from anxiety, they usually perceive neutral situations to be dangerous and threatening. For instance, when an anxious child is easily startled by a loud sound or assumes that shadows in their bedroom are scary creatures. For adults, it could be assuming that a phone call from a relative is to share bad news or misinterpreting their cold symptoms as a more serious illness. The common theme is that whereas anxiety is supposed to be an adaptive response to keep us safe from actual threats to our lives, when someone is almost always assuming that the worst case scenario is most likely to happen, their anxiety is hurting them more than it is helping them.
Since our fight or flight response gets triggered when our minds perceive that we are in danger, someone with excessive anxiety is likely to activate their ‘emergency mode’ on a regular basis. However, our bodies are not built to be in a constant state of emergency, and physiologically, the stress and associated hormones (e.g. cortisol), can create lots of health problems. Stress is a killer, and therefore it is imperative that we develop healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety.
One way to override the fight or flight response, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for calming us down after the dangerous situation is over), is by forcing our body to do the opposite of what it wants to do. As mentioned above, when we are in danger our breathing becomes quicker and shallower. Therefore, a great method to quell our anxiety is to take deep breaths.
Deep breathing may sound like a cliche that any friend or pseudo-therapist may recommend to help you calm down, but the truth is that scientific research shows that when done properly, deep breathing is highly effective!
Diaphragmatic breathing (the scientific term) or ‘belly breathing’ (the unscientific term) involves extending your belly out, forward, while taking a big, deep breath in through your nose, and then deflating your belly as you exhale. A good way to make sure you are doing it properly is to place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. As you breathe in, the hand on your stomach should rise up as you use your stomach muscles to extend your belly out. As you breathe out, you should feel your hand on your stomach go down as your belly flattens.
A 2017 study by Taiwanese researchers found that patients with anxiety who enrolled in an 8-week course on diaphragmatic breathing had significant reductions in their anxiety symptoms (with no other therapy at all).  They also performed significantly better than a control group who had no treatment.
Diaphragmatic breathing is a great technique to master because it is effective, always available to you, has no side effects and is free-of-charge.
As Rashi says in this week’s parsha - those in distress will experience shallow, short breaths. The ancient wisdom of the Torah, in conjunction with modern, psychological science, can truly provide us with the guidance to live a happier, healthier life.
 Chen, Y., Huang, X., Chien, C., & Cheng, J. (2017). The effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training for reducing anxiety. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 53(4), 329-336.