Updated: Apr 23
I finally get it. Deep, slow breaths create real physical changes in our body, not just our thought patterns.
I have been advocating mindfulness activities and saying "just breathe" to friends and clients for years. Our last blog post reviewed mindfulness apps because I firmly believe that this kind of practice is incredibly useful, especially for those of us with restless minds. But, until recently, I didn't understand why it works so well.
Why it works
When you are anxious, deep breathing flips a switch in your autonomic nervous system, which controls involuntary actions like heart rate and eye dilation. That system is divided into two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic system.
The sympathetic system controls your fight-or-flight response. It increases heart rate, makes your palms sweat, and makes your hair stand on end. At the same time, it slows processes you don't need in an emergency, like digestion.
The parasympathetic system controls body processes during normal situations. Generally, it "conserves and restores" (Merck), to keep the body running most efficiently. After you are done with fight-or-flight, it the sympathetic system that slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure back down to normal.
I think of these systems as being like the difference between a sports car and an economy car. The sports car requires premium gasoline and is built to drive fast; it seems like a waste to make it a daily driver to tote children and go to the grocery store. An economy car is made for the mundane things of life. It doesn't need high octane fuel, but it also doesn't drive up mountains or at high speeds very easily.
The body has an amazing capacity to be both an economy car and a sports car, but in times of crisis, or when we are anxious, we can get stuck in sports car mode. Hearts race, blood pressure rises. Generally, our engines rev like we're sitting in park and flooring the accelerator.
When we breathe deeply and slowly, it deactivates the sympathetic system and activates the parasympathetic system, as simply as pushing the "economy" button on my car's dashboard. It also allows more carbon dioxide to enter the blood, further calming the parts of your brain that handle anxiety responses.
Studies show that deep breathing helps more than anxiety. Reduced pain, improved mood, lower blood pressure, and increased attention are among the reported benefits. And, as far as I know, there are no side effects or risks to breathing (beyond the risks we take every day in this polluted world). Of course, if you start to feel dizzy or faint while practicing, stop the session and return to breathing normally.
How to do it
To counter the short, rapid breaths that your sympathetic system invokes when you are anxious or stressed, take slower, longer breaths from your diaphragm. Start by focusing on the depth of your breath, pushing your stomach out each time you inhale. Count until at least three for each inhalation and exhalation. Keep doing this until you start to notice your body feeling more relaxed.
For most people, it takes practice to be comfortable breathing this way. Singers work for years on diaphragmatic breathing to be able to sustain notes clearly, with good support. Yogic breathing is a whole field of study on its own. So don't be hard on yourself if you don't immediately see results, and keep practicing regularly to achieve greater benefits.
If you would like more guidance about deep breathing, you might want to try a mindfulness app that can walk you through not only breathing but other aspects of reducing stress and releasing negative or obsessive thoughts, as well. Smart watches provide apps for breathing, as well.
I'm heading out to sit on my porch and breathe. I hope you do the same very soon. Let me know how it works for you.