Why Breathing Is The One Direct Control You Have Over Anxiety

don't panic

Have you ever stopped to consider the incredible power of your breath? It’s a subtle yet profound force that influences not only our physical health but also our emotional well-being. In fact, our breath has a direct impact on the intricate network of systems within our body, including the autonomic nervous system, which governs our responses to different situations. Within this system, there are two branches that play pivotal roles in our overall state of balance and relaxation: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

When we find ourselves in high-stress situations, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, activating the well-known “fight or flight” response. Our heart rate quickens, our muscles tense, and our bodies prepare for action. It’s an innate survival mechanism that served our ancestors well in dangerous situations. However, in today’s fast-paced world, this stress response can be triggered even by everyday pressures and challenges.

Cute Pug dealing with anxiety
Photo by Matthew Henry

On the other hand, we have the parasympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “rest and digest” response. This branch of our autonomic nervous system is responsible for promoting a state of relaxation, calmness, and restoration. When activated, it helps lower our heart rate, relax our muscles, improve digestion, and boost overall well-being.

So, how can we tap into the power of the parasympathetic system and promote a sense of calm amidst the chaos of modern life? One of the most effective techniques is diaphragmatic breathing, also known as deep belly breathing. This simple yet profound practice allows us to consciously engage with our breath, influencing the functioning of our autonomic nervous system and directly shifting our state from stress to relaxation.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into the connection between diaphragmatic breathing, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and how they all intertwine. We’ll explore the science behind these processes and provide practical tips on incorporating diaphragmatic breathing into your daily life.

Understanding the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body’s automatic functions, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. It consists of two main branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which work in a delicate balance to maintain our overall well-being.

  1. The sympathetic nervous system:
    • This branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response.
    • It activates during times of stress, danger, or perceived threats, preparing our body for immediate action.
    • When the sympathetic response is triggered, adrenaline is released, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
  2. The parasympathetic nervous system:
    • The parasympathetic branch initiates the “rest and digest” response.
    • It promotes relaxation, restoration, and recovery, allowing our body to conserve energy and focus on essential functions.
    • When activated, the parasympathetic response helps lower heart rate, relax muscles, improve digestion, and enhance immune function.

The Connection Between Breath and the Autonomic Nervous System

Woman breathing
Photo by Darius Bashar

Our breath serves as a powerful tool to influence the autonomic nervous system. By consciously altering our breathing patterns, we can directly affect the functioning of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses.

Shallow and rapid breathing and the sympathetic response:

  1. When we experience stress, our breathing tends to become shallow and rapid.
  2. This type of breathing triggers the sympathetic response, activating the “fight or flight” mechanism.
  3. Shallow breathing restricts the diaphragm’s movement and limits the oxygen intake, contributing to feelings of anxiety and tension.

Deep diaphragmatic breathing and the parasympathetic response:

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, involves engaging the diaphragm to take deep, slow breaths.
  2. This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic response and helps shift the body into a state of relaxation.
  3. Deep breathing encourages the diaphragm to fully expand, allowing for increased oxygen intake and improved circulation.

Introducing Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a simple and effective technique that can be practiced anytime, anywhere. Here’s how to incorporate it into your daily life:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, ensuring that your back is straight but relaxed.
  2. Place your hand on your abdomen: Rest one hand on your abdomen, just below the ribcage.
  3. Take a deep breath in: Inhale slowly through your nose, directing the breath towards your abdomen. Feel your hand rise as your belly expands.
  4. Exhale fully: Slowly exhale through your mouth, allowing your belly to deflate as you release the breath. Focus on making the exhalation longer than the inhalation.
  5. Repeat and relax: Continue this deep belly breathing pattern for a few minutes, allowing yourself to relax and let go of any tension.
woman doing diaphragmatic breathing
Photo by Le Minh Phuong

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing and the Parasympathetic Response

Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing and activating the parasympathetic response offers numerous benefits for our physical and mental well-being:

  1. Reduces stress and anxiety: Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic response, calming the mind and reducing the production of stress hormones like cortisol.
  2. Enhances relaxation and sleep quality: Diaphragmatic breathing induces a state of deep relaxation, promoting better sleep and helping to improve overall sleep quality.
  3. Boosts immune function: By reducing stress and supporting overall well-being, diaphragmatic breathing can enhance immune function and strengthen the body’s natural defense mechanisms.
  4. Improves focus and mental clarity: Deep breathing increases oxygen supply to the brain, enhancing mental clarity, focus, and concentration.
  5. Supports digestion and gut health: The parasympathetic response stimulated by diaphragmatic breathing optimizes digestion, allowing for improved nutrient absorption and gut health.

Final Thoughts

Diaphragmatic breathing offers a simple yet profound way to tap into the power of the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation, calmness, and overall well-being. By consciously engaging with our breath and incorporating deep belly breathing into our daily routine, we can reduce stress, enhance mental clarity, and support our body’s natural healing processes. So, take a deep breath and embrace the transformative benefits of diaphragmatic breathing in your life.