Author: Perrin Jones, MA, LCMHCA, NCC, MT-BC
If someone (including a therapist) has ever told you to take a deep breath when you were feeling stressed or anxious, your initial reaction may have been to roll your eyes – you just didn’t feel that taking a breath was really going to cut it for you in that moment. While it seems cliché, there’s a reason that “take a deep breath” has become a go-to saying for managing distress inside and outside of therapy sessions – it’s actually super effective. In fact, our breath is the direct line we have to our nervous systems, which become activated when we are stressed, anxious, angry, or upset. Though there’s no “wrong” way to breathe, there are breathing techniques you can try that provide an intensification of calming and regulating as compared to a typical deep breath. Read on for more details about using our breath intentionally to help us manage these often-uncomfortable emotions.
You’ve probably heard of the fight or flight response before. When we are in fight or flight, our bodies and minds think that we are under attack and are preparing us to either combat the threat or get away from the situation. The branch of our autonomic nervous system that is responsible for the fight or flight response is called the sympathetic nervous system. When we are angry, anxious, or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system activates, and we experience the same physiological fight or flight symptoms that we do when we are physically threatened – our heart races, breathing picks up, we might start to sweat, muscles tense up, pupils dilate, our digestion takes a pause… sounds a lot like anxiety, right? Because this is such a body-based experience, we can rely on our bodies to cope with the emotion present; in fact, what our bodies do, our minds will follow.
To counter the sympathetic response, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system; this is the side of our nervous system responsible for helping us rest and digest. The quickest way for us to make this response dominant is to use our breath. Don’t get me wrong – taking a deep breath is a great start, but you may have to be a bit more intentional with your breathing to truly counter the fight or flight response in the moment. I call this “hacking your nervous system.” The parasympathetic branch of the nervous system becomes dominant each time we exhale, while the sympathetic is dominant when we inhale (think about when you see something and get startled – the first innate thing you do is to gasp, activating your fight or flight). Since that’s the case, focusing on your exhale while you breathe will naturally help you calm down. Use the 7-11 method where you inhale for 7 counts and exhale for 11. If counting doesn’t work for you, just work on extending your exhale slightly longer than your inhale to assist in calming. Do this for as many breath cycles as you can, and make small tweaks to your counting structure or tempo if you feel light headed or uncomfortable.
The bottom line? Don’t discount breathing for helping you regulate. Our breath is essential, and we can choose how we use it in the moment. Taking a deep breath is fantastic, but being able to “hack your nervous system” and use neurobiology to your advantage will take you to the next level!