Have you ever been told to “just breathe” in a stressful or overwhelming situation? Most people have received this ostensibly obvious advice in a moment of distress. But unless you understand WHY focusing on your breath- the rate, depth, pace, and mode of breathing- is advantageous, you probably blew this comment off as nescient and suspiciously condescending. But try thinking back to a particularly unnerving situation- you will probably remember a quickening of your breathing rate, longer inhales versus exhales and shallower breaths. This was likely correlated with a heightened state, and feelings of angst, uncertainty, and nervousness. You would be remiss to think that these feelings of stress and heightened sympathetic activity are unrelated to the change in your breathing sequencing.
Our breathing patterns influence our mental and physiological state, and vice versa. This means that by manipulating your breath, you can alter both your physiological and mental state. AKA you can immediately reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, decrease your heart rate, and quiet your mind by breathing in a specific manner.
Deliberate breath-work is the most time efficient and cost effective way to reduce stress and anxiety. Sure jet setting away to Mediterranean or indulging in a spa weekend with your girlfriends are great strategies to reduce stress, but they take time, require planning and cannot be performed rapidly in a moment of acute stress overload (and lets be honest, jet setting to the Mediterranean isn’t exactly cost effective).
How Breathing Affects Our Physiology
Breathing techniques to promote a sense of calmness and serenity work by down-regulating the nervous system. Down regulating typically involves extending exhales, and shortening inhales. When we exhale, the heart’s surface area decreases because of the rise of the diaphragm. Blood moves more quickly through a smaller surface area (the heart) and thus the brain sends a signal to slow the heart rate down. Deceased heart rate is correlated with the parasympathetic state (rest and digest).
When inhaling is elongated or performed more rapidly, the nervous system enters a more “up-regulated” or sympathetic state. The heart gets bigger on inhale, thus blood flows more slower in bigger surface area so brain sends signal to heart to increase rate. Thus by inhaling more rapidly, or for longer periods of time, the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response) is activated by an increased heart rate and vice versa.
Thus by manipulating our breathing, we can alter our internal state and regulate our stress response and mental health. Below are several breathing techniques that can be employed to pump the breaks on the stress (sympathetic response), and guide oneself into a state of serenity and relaxation.
Breathing Techniques for a Calm Nervous System
1. Box breathing: This technique is actually used by Navy SEALs to steady their nerves and promote a state of clarity and focus before entering high pressure situations. Box breathing involves inhaling, holding your inhale, exhaling, and holding empty lungs post exhale for a specific amount of time. You can choose how many seconds you want to perform the series of inhales, holds, and exhales for, however 4 seconds is most commonly used. As you get better at box breathing, you can increase the amount of time. The steps are as follows:
Step 1: Breathe in through your nose, counting to 4 slowly.
Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds, trying to avoid inhaling or exhaling
Step 3: Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Try not to let all the air out at once.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 for 3-4 rounds, or until you feel centered.
2. Physiological Sigh or Cyclical Sigh: A new study examining the effects of this method of breathing was recently released by Stanford School of Medicine, and demonstrated reductions in anxiety, breathing rate at rest, and improved mood and calmness. This style of breathing is performed by taking one deep inhale through the nose, immediately followed by a another short, sharp inhale through the nose, and an extended, slow exhale through the mouth. It works by offloading the maximum amount of carbon dioxide at once. You will feel more calm after just 2 rounds of physiological sighing, however to get the full effect, 5 minutes of physiological sighing is recommended.
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing: Most notably used in the practice of yoga, alternate nostril breathing involves breathing through one nostril at a time. Studies have shown that performed habitually, alternate nostril breathing can decreased blood pressure and heart rate, and improve cognitive functioning. The steps are as follows:
1. Sit upright and exhale fully through both nostrils.
2. Close your right nostril and slowly inhale through the left nostril.
3. After a full inhale through the left nostril, close your left nostril.
4. Open your right nostril and fully exhale through the right nostril.
5. Close your right nostril and inhale again through the left nostril.
6. Continue this pattern of breathing for up to 15 minutes for the desired calming effect on mind and body.
Next time you are starting to feel stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, come back into your body, and try implementing on of these breathing techniques to restore calm, clarity, and a sense of peace to your nervous system. You just might find that you have more control over your mental and physical wellbeing than you previously imagined.
Dr. Melissa Kolazyk-Fonte, PT, DPT, CMTPT