The Importance of Breathing
I’ve lost many skills from my days as choir and theater nerd, but I’ve retained the most important things: a triple time step and the art of breathing. Unknowingly, I was trained in a ritual that’s an effective yet often forgotten coping tool we can access in our most stressful moments. Not a shallow heaving in the chest, but full inhales filling the lungs and expanding the belly, followed by prolonged, controlled exhales. This is the kind of breathing that supports the pitch of a rich, sustained note. Turns out, this type of breathing also supports our mental health and well-being.
Before I understood the science and psychology behind deep breathing, I used breathing to bring me back into the present moment when I was under pressure. I had become accustomed to taking a deep breath before I opened my mouth to sing or step on stage. This kept me from shaking or squeaking out a note, and got me out of my head and living in a performance. So, I didn’t think twice before using breath to soothe myself before grad school interviews and the time I opened the door to a waiting room to meet my very first client ever (which was scarier than any time I was on a stage).
When people meet me, their first thought isn’t, “She must love being in front of a crowd.” Truthfully, I don’t like it very much at all. Breathing helped me navigate the stress of the moment and build a bridge from avoidance to doing what was important to me. What is it about breathing that helps us move through the stress of meeting our first clients, performing, driving in rush hour traffic, or navigating a toddler temper tantrum?
The Stress Response
When we encounter challenges in our daily lives, our brain engages in a stress response. The stress response starts in the most primitive parts of the brain, which does the job of keeping us alive, controlling functions such as blood circulation and digestion. The systems which serve to keep us alive are also on alert for danger, prepared to help us do what’s needed to survive.
Often, the brain’s primitive response that would help us run from a bear in days past is mismatched with the stressors of our modern world. Most days, we don’t have to run from bears, but the primitive parts of the brain keep doing their job when we run into an ex at the grocery store or accidentally hit “reply-all.” These situations don’t warrant a fight, flight, or freeze response—ok, maybe running into an ex does—but what we experience in the moment feels like a worst-case scenario.
When our brain and body become aroused under pressure, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is at work—the part of our nervous system that prepares us to fight or flee in life-threatening situations. It’s compliment, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), activates to recover from a stress response. What we experience when our stress response is at work can range from racing thoughts and a flutter in the stomach to a pounding heart and soaked-through shirt.
Mild stress can motivate and energize us to meet challenges successfully. Stress overload can limit our ability to respond intuitively and effectively. We tense up, breathe shallowly, and can’t think—literal and metaphorical choking. Sometimes, we find ourselves worrying and looking out for danger when there’s no apparent stressor, or worrying out of proportion to the stressor at hand (known as anxiety). Other times, we’re stressed about being stressed, and understandably so; research connects living in a state of constant stress with risk for physical decline, making the rising stress levels in our country a very real threat to our well-being.
Our stress response systems aren’t evolving anytime soon, but in good fortune, the higher-order parts of our brains have allowed humans to produce compelling research on coping with stress and creating stillness through our breath.
Back to the SNS and the PSNS, arousal, and recovery, respectively. On a most basic level, when we breathe, our inhales engage activity in the SNS, and our exhales engage activity in the PSNS (science enthusiasts can read more about the physiology of this here). It’s a switch we can experience from inhale to exhale if we pay attention. Find your pulse and inhale deeply, filling the space in your abdomen. Notice your heart-rate speed up. Now exhale gently, for about 5 seconds, and feel your pulse slow down. When we elongate the breath, specifically our exhales, we decrease the number of breaths we take per minute and send signals of calm from our body back to the brain via the PSNS.
We do not have direct control over automatic bodily functions that change with our stress levels, like heart rate. We can’t think our heart rate into slowing down. And yet, there’s breathing. Breath may start to quicken automatically under stress. However, breathing is a function that is both unconscious and conscious. What’s happening with our breath automatically we can make intentional. We can notice our breath and choose to change it. Through this one exercise, we can engage with a part of our brain that is usually doing its own thing.
When we consciously decide to breathe, we gain some control over our physical response to stress and summon our mental resources. The upper regions of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in particular, help us reason and make decisions. Energy is often directed away from these areas of the brain in times of stress, redirected to parts of our brain governing our most vital functions. When we choose to breathe, especially if we are counting, we reengage with the higher order parts of the brain and can start to refocus our attention on making an effective decision about the challenge at hand.
Breathing is one way to let the brain know it can relax–there’s not a bear around—and to help us become consciously engaged in the way we respond to stress. It’s a two-way street: the brain triggers changes in the body, but changing the body can impact the brain.
The Practice: Breathing Exercises
If you have any current injuries or respiratory or cardiovascular illness, consult with your healthcare provider before engaging in breathing exercises.
Tapping into the benefits of breathing is possible both in times of stress or repose. When you notice a situation heating up, take a few deep breaths. I try to extend my exhales at least two seconds longer than my inhales, and breathe as deeply and exhale as completely as I can. If you’re feeling gracious, thank your brain for doing its job by alerting you to “the bear” and keeping you alive. Then let it know that you got this.
Sometimes, circumstances are overwhelming enough that we forget to breathe. To build a foundation for harnessing the power of the breath, you can practice breathing in moments of calm. Days often start with a hurry to rush out the door. Instead, try starting your day with 1-10 minutes of paced-breathing, increasing your sessions gradually. You can count your breaths or pair your inhale and exhales with your own grounding affirmations (but don’t forget about that longer exhale). We learn and build skills through repetition and practice. It’s a challenge to focus solely on the breath, but over time, you can create a quiet space that you secretly carry with you throughout the day. All you need to drop back into this space is your breath, which is accessible to you anytime, anywhere.
Sound a lot like mindfulness? It is. Breathing my favorite way to practice mindfulness, and vice versa. Building a practice in both is complimentary. Combine the benefits of breathing with the benefits of mindfulness and you have a one-two-punch for stress. Some people find apps like Stop, Breathe & Think and Insight Timer helpful for practicing mindful breathing.
Breathing, like any coping skill, is not a cure-all. It may not always be able to slow our stress response, particularly in our most intense moments of panic, but it can bring the comforting knowledge that you are alive and are capable of taking action even as you ride the wave of anxiety or other intense emotions. In the both ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that seem impossible to get through, you always have your breath.