I know, it’s not news: Breathing is essential to life. Though we can survive for days or weeks without food and water, most of us can’t survive more than three minutes without the oxygen we take in through breathing! Luckily, we don’t have to remind ourselves to inhale and exhale, because breath is an autonomic body function—meaning it happens without any forethought. This type of breath, called unconscious breath, is particularly useful when you have to focus all your attention on a difficult task like taking a test or driving in heavy traffic.
We also have the ability to control the rate and depth of our breath. This type of breath, called conscious breath, is vital for activities like blowing up a balloon, singing, and diving into a pool. But conscious breath offers some other benefits. With practice, you can use conscious breath to improve your health—especially when it comes to managing stress. By understanding how breath affects the body, you can easily implement a daily breath practice to live a fuller, more stress-free life.
The rate and depth of your breath directly influence the health of your nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two settings—the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest). The sympathetic nervous system is designed to help you survive in life-threatening situations. It causes a short-term increase in blood pressure and heart rate, makes breath shallower and faster, and sends blood to the extremities. It also “turns off” non-essential body functions, like digestion, as a means to conserve energy. This was particularly important long ago, when we had natural predators that we had to run away from. The sympathetic nervous system literally allows us to run faster and longer.
Once the threat/predator is gone, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, bringing all body functions back to normal. The parasympathetic nervous system causes the breath to slow and deepen, lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, increasing blood flow to the digestive system, and decreasing blood flow to the arms and legs. In general, the parasympathetic nervous system is associated with feeling calm and content. If the parasympathetic nervous system fails to kick in, and you get stuck in a fight or flight response, you can end up suffering from a range of ailments related to the heart, lungs, digestive system, and muscles.
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to respond to serious threats, but any kind of stress will trigger it. Stress is your body’s response to a stimulus such as a deadline at work, conflicts in a relationship, or financial troubles. Countless Americans suffer from chronic, or ongoing, stress in their daily lives, meaning they spend a disproportionate amount of time living in their sympathetic nervous system. We cannot change the number of stressors we face throughout the day, but we can minimize our own stress response.
The parasympathetic nervous system causes the breath to slow. Conversely, slowing the breath triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s a two-way street! If you control your breath to make it deep and slow (remember you can do that because breathing can be conscious!), you will stimulate the vagus nerve, which “turns on” the parasympathetic nervous system. By tuning into your breath, you can consciously balance your nervous system to feel more energized, sleep more soundly, and take control of your body’s response to stress.
Notice Your Breath. Pause three times each day to focus on your natural breath for 3-minute intervals. Come to a comfortable standing or seated position. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Feel the rise and fall of your belly and chest, and take note of the tempo of your natural breath.
Consciously Slow Down. Acknowledge the relationship between your heart rate and your breath speed at least once a day. To start, count two seconds to inhale and two seconds to exhale. The following week, if you feel comfortable, increase the time to three seconds for your inhale and exhale. Continue increasing the length of your inhale and exhale until you reach ten seconds. Practice slowing down your breath at least once a day for five minutes.
Read Your Body’s Signs and React. Notice the signs when you feel yourself shifting into your sympathetic nervous system—quicker breath, faster heart rate, etc. Now consciously control your breath to shift back into your parasympathetic nervous system. Each time you use your breath to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, you actively choose calm over stress—a great habit to start!