How Breathing Fights Stress

What’s the first sensation you notice in your body when you face a moment of stress? Are you shaky? Does your heart race? Do your palms sweat? Maybe your breath becomes quicker and shallower. These physiological changes are all regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which continually works to regulate heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion.

When we face any stress, whether big or little, the sympathetic branch (better known as fight-or-flight) of the autonomic nervous system activates. Even bad traffic on the way home can cause the release of adrenal hormones into the bloodstream that triggers fight-or-flight in multiple parts of the body. The result can be higher blood pressure, faster breathing, a quicker heart rate, and even elevated blood sugar levels.

It might seem like there is little we can do to stop fight-or-flight from activating in our everyday environment. But our breath acts as a direct gateway to the autonomic nervous system. Since we have conscious control of our breathing, we can use deep, slow, diaphragmatic breaths to send a signal to our brain via the phrenic nerve that we are in a non-stressful situation. Many people live in a near-constant state of fight-or-flight. Using breathing strategies can give you better control over your nervous system, resulting in diminished cortisol levels, less muscle tension, and stabilized blood pressure.

Square breathing nudges your rest-and-digest branch of the autonomic nervous system into the “on” position. The next time you notice the physical sensations of stress, try breathing to the count of four:

  1. Inhale, 2, 3, 4
  2. Hold, 2, 3, 4
  3. Exhale, 2, 3, 4
  4. Hold, 2, 3, 4

Repeat 4 rounds of square breathing, or as many as you need to feel relaxed.


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