Slow Breathing Techniques

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Capt. Andrew Dimond
  • 97th Medical Group Mental Heath Clinic

Don’t you hate it when you can’t seem to formulate the words you really wanted to say due to anger, stress, or anxiety? Did you know there are techniques, if practiced, which can help you improve your ability to think and speak more clearly when faced with moments of increased stress and/or anger?

Most people know that taking a deep breath can be helpful when stressed or angry. However, some people are less aware of why taking a breath can be helpful and the benefits from it. These mechanics behind this process can be explained by exploring our autonomic nervous system in our body.

Our body’s autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch activates the body for responding to threats and includes the fight-flight-freeze response. It is the sympathetic nervous system that responds if we run into a bear while in the woods and says, “Let’s get out of here!” This system can increase our heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate. It also decreases our stomach’s ability to digest food and will hyper-focus our attention. All of those functions are valuable when responding to unexpectedly meeting a perceived threat, such as a bear. On the other hand, they are not as useful if we unexpectedly have to meet with our Supervisor. We may perceive both situations as potentially threatening.

Since our body is geared towards responding to alleged threats,its physical response, when we perceived we are threatened, can make it harder for us to react calmly to the kinds of situations we experience in our modern work and social lives. An increased heart rate, hyper-focus, and upset stomach can distract you and make it difficult to get across what you want to say. Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system also uses up our bodies’ resources. Consequently, we can feel drained and be more prone to illness.

Fortunately, the sympathetic branch of our nervous system can be kept in check by the parasympathetic branch. This branch can be thought of as the rest and restore side of our nervous system and it does the opposite of the sympathetic branch. It reduces our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. It also expands our mental focus and helping us digest food. These two branches of the nervous system function like a simple scale; if one is more activated, the other becomes less activated.

Generally speaking, we have little ability to decide how much one branch or the other is active within our bodies. However, our breathing rate is the one thing that we have conscious control of, which can directly influence how much we are in a fight-flight-freeze response or rest and restore mode. If we breathe quickly, such as when hyperventilating, it leads to greater activity of the sympathetic branch. On the other hand, if we intentionally breathe slowly, we can reduce how much our body is activated and move towards the rest and restore mode.

Breathing to obtain this effect does not necessarily need to be deep, it just needs to be slow. The exact pacing can vary from person to person, but typically 4-5 second inhales and exhales work well. Other methods that some people prefer include having a longer inhale and shorter exhale (while keeping approximately the same 8-10 second time frame for a breath) or doing square breathing (4 second inhale, hold breath for 4 seconds, 4 second exhale, hold breath for 4 seconds, repeat).

With any of these breathing techniques there are two ways that they can be utilized. One way is to use them when you notice you are currently feeling stressed, anxious, or angry. Slow breathing can help balance your body’s response and enable you to focus more on responding to what is causing those emotions (unless it really is a bear, in which case you should probably let the fight or flight response have its way). The other way to use these techniques is to set aside 1-2 minutes, 2-3 times per day to intentionally practice slow breathing. Doing so can start to retrain your body’s unconscious base breathing rate and is especially helpful for dealing with chronic stress or anger. Practice will begin to lower your baseline level of sympathetic activation and it will take more to push you into a full fight-flight-freeze response.

Getting into a habit of practicing slow breathing can be easier if you pair it with something you already do 2-3 times per day, such as eating a meal, brushing your teeth, or getting into and out of bed or the car. Other ideas include: setting reminders on your smartphone or wearing some physical reminder, such as a rubber band, that acts as a prompt to practice slow breathing every time you notice it. Soon you will be well on your way to a lower baseline sympathetic activation and the ability to have clearer responses when faced with difficult interactions that may cause increased stress, anger, or anxiety.

Now that we live in a technological age, those individuals interested in slow breathing smartphone apps can practice breathing by visiting the Breathe2Relax app, Tactical Breather app, and or the Virtual Hope Box app. All three were developed by the DoD and are available free for the Android or IPhone user. Visit this site for more information on breathing apps.