Who hasn’t heard, said, or been told the following when experiencing stress, fear, or anger?
“Just take a deep breath and relax…”
It’s a super common expression that refers to a very simple action. Deep breathing techniques are often cited as an important tool that can help you to immediately alleviate stress, anxiety, frustration, and anger and their use and benefits can be traced back to ancient traditions. Nearly all of the contemplative disciplines – meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, etc., etc., etc. – integrate this type of breathing into their practices.
Yet, many people have difficulty practicing deep breathing exercises because they either don’t believe that it’ll help, or they try once and then don’t try again.
When it comes to breathing exercises, much like swimming or riding a bike, practice makes perfect.
The more you get into a routine of practicing breathing exercises, the better you’ll become at doing so, which will give you the ability to reduce stress, anger, and frustration easier than before.
Why do breathing exercises work to relax our bodies and minds?
The body has two systems within the nervous system: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. Both of these systems contribute to the reasons why deep breathing exercises can calm us down.
Let’s check out how the nature of our physiological systems contributes to the positive effects.
The fight or flight (or freeze) response.
Our biological systems have a natural ability to react during times of stress, especially in those situations where we’re facing a huge threat – think an angry rhinoceros barreling in your direction.
As a matter of survival, humans have always had this ability. In prehistoric times, humans came face-to-face with all sorts of wild animals, such as sabretooth tigers. Rarr!
In response to such a threat, our body activates the Fight, Flight, Freeze Response, or FFF reaction.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the physical sensations we get when we feel stress, anxiety, or severe anger and frustration. These can include sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and faster breathing. The activation of the FFF (Fight, Flight, or Freeze) response is preparing our bodies to either run, fight the threat, or freeze.
The problem with the activation of the Fight or Flight Response is that it can be activated whenever we perceive that we’re up against a threat – whether we really are facing a threat or not. Our brains are tricky that way and trying to protect us.
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Even though we experience negative situations in our lives, this does not necessarily make them a threat to our physical well-being.
Situations involving personal relationships, work responsibilities, work promotions, verbal arguments with others, and bad news about your health or the health of loved ones are just a few scenarios that can trigger the FFF response.
Despite the fact that all of these situations may be emotionally hurtful or painful, our body’s nervous system may interpret them as physically threatening. As such, our bodies activate the natural FFF response to get us ready to fight or run away.
Triggering the opposite reaction.
In order to tell our biological systems that what we’re facing doesn’t require a fight or flight response, we have to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. This one produces the opposite response to the FFF, causing a relaxation response instead.
One other important aspect of the Fight or Flight Response is the way that it diverts your blood flow. To prepare you to fight or to get ready to run from a perceived threat, blood is diverted away from the brain to the extremities in the body, such as the arms, legs, hands, and feet because well, those are the essential organs that we need to respond to the perceived threat.
Deep breathing reverses this process.
So, how does deep breathing help? Well, I’m glad you asked! Breathing exercises send the blood supplies back from the extremities (since we’re not concerned with running or fighting) to the areas of the brain that allow us to think, reason, and problem-solve.
This is why breathing exercises work to calm us when we experience acute stress, anger, or frustration. Blood is returning to the brain, and it becomes easier for us to think.
How to practice deep breathing.
There are several ways in which you can practice deep breathing to relax both your body and mind.
The simplest way to practice in times of stress is to:
- Close your eyes.
- Tense your whole body for four seconds while inhaling deeply.
- Then exhale slowly.
- Repeating this three or four times can take you back to a state of relaxation and calm.
Final thoughts on the benefits of deep breathing.
The body’s natural ability to fight or flee from a perceived threat has been useful throughout the ages and is still useful today. However, reversing the process through breathing exercises places you in a better position to think more clearly and reason about the stress or issue that you’re facing.