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Why Breathing Works

By: Alana Friedlander, MA

Have you ever been scared, panicked, or extremely anxious? What happened to your body? Your heart rate likely increased. Your breathing became more shallow. Your blood pressure might have risen. You started to sweat. But why? That’s all due to your autonomic nervous system.

While there is much we do on our own to consciously to maintain our survival, our body also has a way of taking care of itself subconsciously. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a part of our nervous system that regulates involuntary actions, such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and blood pressure. In other words, it regulates the processes we need to survive.

Imagine it’s 2 million years ago. A time without any modern technology, weapons, or ways of communication. You are being chased in the woods by a predator. What do you do? You run. Your ANS becomes activated by the increased stress levels you’re experiencing. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase in order to send more blood to your body. This allows you to run faster. Your breathing speeds ups in order to get oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide more quickly. Your digestive system stops in order to salvage energy in order to run. Your body’s ANS is changing its bodily processes in order to help you survive and flee from danger.

While these changes are extremely helpful when we are in physical danger and need to flee, our bodies do not differentiate different types of danger. In this example, you are in immediate danger of harm. But what about if you have a big presentation coming up and you feel scared about your performance. Our bodies still process that anxiety and fear similar to the ways we would process physical danger. Our breathing becomes more shallow, our heart rate increases, our digestive system slows, and our blood pressure rises. While our body is just trying to protect us, shallow breathing and increased heart rate are not necessarily helpful when the experienced fear is over a presentation.

So, how can we manage this?

Diaphragmatic breathing is an excellent tool to gain control of our ANS. As mentioned, when our bodies are in fear, our breathing becomes quick and shallow. Through diaphragmatic breathing we can stimulate the vagus nerve which in term stimulates our body’s relaxation response.

So, what is diaphragmatic breathing?

Take a second and take a deep breath. Notice what happens. Did your chest rise and fall? Did your shoulders lift? Did your belly inflate? While breathing is central to life, there are different muscles our bodies can use in order to inhale oxygen and release carbon dioxide. As babies, we breathe using the muscles of our diaphragm to help oxygen flow in and out of our lungs. As we mature, we stop using our diaphragm and use our chest. Diaphragmatic breathing requires us to breathe from our diaphragm instead of our chest. This can be difficult as it requires the training of a muscle. One way of practicing is lying on your back with one hand on your chest and one hand on your diaphragm or upper abdomen. Taking deep breaths, watch as your hands rise and fall. When breathing from your diaphragm you will notice your abdomen rise with each breath and fall with each exhale. The hand on your chest should stay pretty still. This will be difficult at first but will become easier with practice.

Do this for 5 minutes a day and see what happens? Experiment using it when you are stressed or scared? It is an excellent tool to manage your biological and psychological responses to fear and anxiety.


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