Have you ever been told to take a few mindful breaths to calm down? Breathing plays a key role in managing stress, but how does mindful breathing help?

We take a breath roughly 12 – 20 times per minute. Breathing is one of the few capabilities with both involuntary and voluntary function: most of the time we breath automatically, but, if we bring attention to our breathing, we can manipulate it at will.

Respiration is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, which enables and regulates basic survival functions including heart rate, digestion, body temperature, and pupil dilation. The autonomic nervous system is part of the peripheral system in that it is the communication network between the body and the brain and spinal cord, and has three distinct divisions: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric. For the most part, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates activity to prepare for action, the parasympathetic nervous system inhibits activity to prepare for rest and digestion, and the enteric nervous system governs the gastrointestinal tract.

Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems  

One of the primary roles of the autonomic nervous system is to manage and regulate our physiology to respond to the demands of the environment. If the environment is stressful or threatening the sympathetic nervous system becomes active leading to an overall state of elevated activity (aka the fight or flight response). In this process, signals are sent to corresponding parts of the body to prepare for action – including sending oxygen to the arms and legs. While this prepares us to fight or flee, it hijacks good oxygen flow to the brain, which makes it difficult to think clearly. And while most of us aren’t facing direct threat to our survival daily, our nervous systems tend to be more sympathetic dominant, because our high stress, overly busy lifestyles trick our internal physiology to remain on high alert – always ready to respond to stress. This results in breath patterns that are shallow and short and can contribute to anxious/fearful thinking, creating a continual stress cycle.

The parasympathetic nervous system promotes rest and digestion, with its main role of repairing the body and conserving energy and has the opposite effect on the body when activated.  When we are relaxed and feel safe, the breath becomes longer and deeper, resulting in more oxygen flow to the brain (enhancing cognitive function) and provides additional carbon dioxide to the blood, which also quiets activity in the emotional centers of the brain that become overly active under stress. Increased carbon dioxide also helps synchronize the heartbeat and breath.

Cardiac Coherence

Interestingly, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are connected to the cycles of our breath: when we inhale, we get a slight boost of sympathetic arousal, which leads to an uptick in heart rate and when we exhale, we bring the parasympathetic system up a notch, leading to a slight decrease in heart rate. Cardiac coherence is the relationship between these physiological processes and their connection to the quality and stability of the feelings and emotions we experience.

Slow, deep breathing increases activity of the main parasympathetic nerve, the vagus nerve. Since this nerve runs through most of our internal organs, including the heart and lungs, breathing mindfully sends messages along the nerve pathway and to the brain that elicit overall feelings of calm accompanied by decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension – all of which alleviates the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Thus, regulating the breath works through both neurobiological and psychological mechanisms – in laymen’s terms: slow, mindful breathing calms the body and the mind!

Mindful Breathing Practice

Find a comfortable seat. Take a moment to release tension by rolling the shoulders and moving the head to release the neck. When ready, sit well, close the eyes, and mentally attend to the breath. After a few moments of breath observation, begin this simple technique for stress reduction and well-being:

Inhale for 5 seconds

Exhale for 5 seconds

Continue for 3 minutes and eventually build up to 5-minute mindful breathing sessions.

Most of us go through our days without much attention to the breath, but we have this special capability to intentionally work with it to impact how we feel and perform. With practice, we improve our ability to manage stress and enhance body connectedness, diverting attention away from stressful, anxious thoughts and bringing us to a place of peaceful presence.