Many of us have heard that deep breathing can be beneficial for our body and mind. We hear about from yoga instructors, in meditation practices and are often encouraged to “take a deep breath” when we’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. If you take a deep breath right now, you may notice a feeling of calm pass over your body, or your attention may be drawn to areas of tension in your body. If We Check In With Our Breath Right Now, We Will Likely Notice A Momentary Shift In Body Posture (Maybe Your Shoulders Relax), A Feeling Of Calm Or A Clearer Mind.
But how does regulating our breathing evoke a state of calm? How do deep breaths help us in moments of stress? And can we harness the power of deep breathing to use it to our benefit?
From a biological perspective, deep breathing involves several key systems that assist us in interpreting and responding to external stimuli. One of those systems is called the autonomic nervous system. This system acts primarily unconsciously and regulates many of the bodily functions that keep us alive (e.g., our heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, etc.). There are two major components of the autonomic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our “fight or flight” response system; meaning it primes us for active, busy, and aroused states. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as our “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system because it switches on when we’re ready to relax, eat, and reproduce. This is a very simplistic overview of these systems, as there are many instances of activity that do not fit into the categories of “fight” vs. “rest”; however, for the purposes of this description, you can imagine these systems switching on depending on various states of arousal.
When we experience stressors, the sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” system) responds. From an evolutionary perspective, this made a lot of sense. If you were being chased by a lion you would need a quick physiological response from your body to prepare you to quickly run away or fight the lion. Our heart rate increases, blood flow to our muscles is enhanced, oxygen exchange occurs more rapidly, our pupils dilate allowing more light to enter the eye, and our digestive and urinary systems are slowed. Our bodies get us ready to fight that lion or bail hard! Obviously today we don’t regularly come across lions; however, our body still produces that same fight or flight response to protect us when we are faced with stress. Imagine the moments before giving a presentation in front of 500 people- cognitively, we know that this is a stressor, and our bodies would be responding by producing that same reaction- priming us to fight or take flight. Stressors do not need to be as substantial as giving a presentation in front of 500 people. For many of us, chronic, low grade stressors occur daily in our workplaces and at home. Despite not being as dramatic as being chased by a lion, our body still produces a similar response to these stressors, and place our bodies in a position of being in constant fight or flight, and not allowing the other important system- “rest and digest” to play it’s part.
When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system slows our heart rate, allows secretion of digestive glands and dilates the blood vessels to the GI tract (thereby increasing blood flow and improving our ability to digest and absorb nutrients), constricts our pupils to facilitate closer vision, and activates nerves responsible for sexual arousal and reproduction.
Both systems are crucial to our survival as humans, and they should both be contributing equally to establish a healthy rhythm. Unfortunately for many of us, the sympathetic nervous system is often tipping the scales more heavily, due to our busy and demanding lifestyles. This results in our nervous system being out of balance. Over time, more consistent and frequent activation of our sympathetic nervous system can lead to chronic conditions like high blood pressure, mood disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and physical pain and tension. Our attention and mental energy might be compromised, our relationships may suffer, and we might start to notice more frequent occurrences of headaches, neck pain and brain fog.
Fortunately, we can help to balance our autonomic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system more frequently. One of the best ways to do this is called Diaphragmatic Breathing or breathing from the diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing activates the vagus nerve- an important nerve in our parasympathetic nervous system that helps regulate physiological and psychological health. In contrast, by taking quick and shallow breaths, you can mistakenly activate your sympathetic nervous system, as the body might interpret this as a time of fight or flight. Deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths will trigger the vagus nerve, activate the parasympathetic response, and bring the autonomic nervous system back into balance.
Simply drawing more attention to our breath in our daily activities can immediately help regulate our autonomic nervous system and yield positive effects to our mood, energy, and engagement. Given how busy our lives are, it is often easy to forget to check in with our breath and instead wait until moments of high stress before engaging in deep breathing. While deep breathing will still be effective in these moments, practicing routine breathing will assist us in reaping the benefits proactively, and long before it becomes a remedy. An effective method of reminding yourself to routinely tune into your breath might be setting a daily alarm, placing a post-it near your computer screen, or pairing your check in with a regular mundane task like filling up your coffee or stopping at a red light. Below you will find a simple breathing exercise called 4-4-4 to try yourself.
THE 4-4-4 BREATHING TECHNIQUE
The key here is to focus on both the quality and duration of breath. Deep breathing should push the lower abdomen out, not draw it in. A quick trick to make sure you’re breathing deeply from the diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing) and not shallow from your chest (thoracic breathing) is to lie on the floor and place a hard cover book on your abdomen. Now take a few deep breaths, breathing into your core. The book should be pushing upward toward the ceiling on each inhale and lowering toward the floor on each exhale. You also can sit with a straight posture and put one hand over your abdomen and the other over your chest. As you breathe deeply, it is your lower hand that should be moving with your breaths.
Once you’ve mastered the deep breath, try the 4-4-4 technique. This simply means you will be inhaling through the nose for a count of 4, holding the breath for another 4 counts, and then exhaling through the mouth for the final 4. Hold for 4 at the end, and then start again. Some find it helpful to visualize a square or box while attempting 4-4-4. Visualize moving up, across, and down each side of the square, you’re counting to 4. It’s critical to give each count a fair 4 seconds and not to rush through. Remember, by taking quick and shallow breaths, you can mistakenly activate your sympathetic nervous system (the opposite effect we are attempting to achieve), as the body might interpret this as a time of fight or flight. Deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths will trigger the vagus nerve, and activate the parasympathetic response, bringing the autonomic nervous system back into balance.