Fortunately, most of us rarely have to think about our breathing. It just happens in the background. However, if you do think about it, you may suddenly realize you need to take a deep breath, after which, you may find you feel a little better. Although we rarely think about it, breathing is connected to our state of mind in a deep way. When we’re tense, our breathing is constricted and shallow, when we’re afraid or excited, our breathing is quick, and when we’re relaxed, our breathing is slow and even. However, it can work the other way too. If you want to work yourself into a panic, try taking some shallow, rapid breaths. On the other hand, you can calm yourself down by taking some slow deep breaths. You’ve probably experienced this at some point, but how does it work?
Deep Breathing Exercises
When you feel stressed or anxious, your sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the system responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Whether you’re about to go in for a job interview or parachute out of a plane, your body responds as if you’re about to be attacked by a lion. Your heart needs to pump more oxygen to your muscles to get you ready for action. You become tense and focused and you breathe more quickly. However, in most of the situations we face today, these adaptations can be counterproductive. Instead of escaping the lion and going back to our normal physiological state, we feel chronically stressed, which makes us tired and sick.
The autonomic nervous system has two countervailing subsystems, the sympathetic nervous system responsible for fight-or-flight, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest-and-digest. Whether we’re tense or relaxed depends on which system is dominant at the time. When you’re anxious, the sympathetic nervous system is in control. If you want to relax, you have to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which you can do by deep breathing. Deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which impacts the parasympathetic system. Activating the vagus nerve helps you relax, it lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces inflammation. It also changes your brain waves. Studies have found that deep breathing increases alpha brain waves which are typically present during relaxation, meditation, and daydreaming.
Manage Stress and Anxiety
This makes deep breathing an excellent tool for managing stress and anxiety. It’s simple, immediate, and has no negative side effects. All you have to do is breathe in, say for a count of four, hold for a count of four, and breathe out slowly, perhaps for a count of eight, then repeat this five or 10 times. Keep in mind that stress can be cumulative and taking a few minutes several times a day to take 10 deep breaths can keep stress from building up. Or, if you find yourself suddenly feeling anxious, a few deep breaths can help you calm down enough to think.
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