Breath Deep for Stress Relief

Marissa Abram, PhD
3 min readMar 31, 2021
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

The stress response is the end-product of a complicated system that we’ve all no doubt felt, and likely in droves this year. Although some of our perceptions and reaction to stress is automatic, like immediate physiological responses after seeing something scary or threatening, we can use the ties between these bodily systems to help us feel more relaxed. One method of inducing relaxation is through deep breathing, which activates the system in our body that’s built to calm us down from stress responses.

An Analogy to Get the Science Down

Photo by Harsh on Unsplash

Think of our body as an elaborate spaceship. We’re constantly navigating, maneuvering throughout our environment, making sure we have enough fuel to go on, and make sure to refuel every night and throughout the day. The cockpit, where decisions are made, where the pilot sits, is akin to our brain. And all throughout the ship, members of the crew need to execute the captain’s vision based on what he says. Think of that process as our nervous system — it’s the system that allows our brain to communicate with the rest of our body, our captain with the rest of our ship.

One of the branches of the nervous system is the autonomic nervous system, which controls the automatic processes of our body like our body temperature and heart rate. So for the spaceship, this would be the processes built-in to the ship, stuff the captain doesn’t have to really think about, like pre-built defense systems for asteroids. And there’s two parts to this system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system responds to threats with fight-or-flight responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the part that calms the body back down to normal from fight-or-flight responses. So one last time with the ship analogy, imagine a ship that’s programmed to automatically increase its thrust force when there’s too much space dust (stick with me) around. That would be the sympathetic nervous system. And after the threat is gone, the ship would throttle back down to normal levels to save resources. That’s the parasympathetic nervous system. To reduce stress, we’d want to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system.

Using the Science

The cool thing is that although these processes can be, and mostly are automatic, their existence in the body gives us some control over them. Some activities like deep breathing and digestion can induce the parasympathetic system to elicit a relaxation response.

Deep-breathing can be practiced anywhere, in a variety of ways, and even done in conjunction with other relaxation-inducing activities like meditation. One recent innovation in researching breathing as a way to calm down arousal due to stress is a breathing pattern called a “physiological sigh”, two inhales and then an exhale. Try it the next time you feel your heart pumping and the fight-or-flight response at its peak. Take two breaths in and one long breath out, and repeat. This pattern of breathing works because it relieves the body of carbon dioxide and reoxygenates alveoli, bags of air, in the lungs. (More about this here: Vision and Breathing, Scientific American)

Or try a deep breathing meditation the next time you have several minutes to spare. Lay down, or sit down with your back and head supported in a comfortable position, and take deep breaths in while counting to three. Pause comfortably, and take deep breaths out, counting again. Focus intensely on the breaths, and verbalize your counting if that prevents your mind from wandering.

Although helpful for our caveman ancestors when dealing with mammoths, we don’t need to embrace the fight-or-flight response when inconveniences trigger our stress response. Deep breathing is just one way to combat the physiological symptoms, so click here to read about cognitive distortions to learn about how to change the perceptions of these stresses.

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Marissa Abram, PhD

Educator, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Addiction Researcher and Founder of Strategic Wellness Management.