A simple breathing exercise calms the mind and body in just a few minutes? Could it really happen that fast or easily?

When I started getting trained as a somatic experiencing practitioner®, I learned about polyvagal nerve theory. I began to understand that the “brain” in our gut connects to the brain in our head. When we say, “my gut tells me…,” we do actually know something important!

It turns out that scientists have known for a long time that the vagus nerve and this gut to head brain connection has a lot to do with the fight, flight and freeze response. Those things relate to trauma and to anxiety and depression as well as to a lot of health issues.

More and more research recently has shown that vagus nerve stimulation can make a big difference in helping depressed patients. Just this year, researchers demonstrated that this type of treatment can be effective in helping with primary insomnia. Another study showed how working with the vagus nerve can lessen fear and anxiety.

Additionally, in many various conditions, pain decreases with vagus nerve treatment and a strong relationship exists between the heart and the vagus nerve. All of this relates to you because the heart and the vagus nerve interact with our breaths.

The following breathing exercise calms the mind and body because of those connections.

To help you understand better how these system work, let me give you some of the basics:

  • The vagus nerve connects the gut brain to the brain in your head. The gut (the viscera) senses threat, for example. It sends a message up the vagus nerve to the brain in your head to say, “check this out!” Then the brain in your head sends a message back down. It might say, “it’s all good” and “we are safe.” Or it might say, “run,” or “fight” or, “panic!” And this dialogue might go back and forth. It might even get stuck when we go into a freeze response.
  • Let’s talk about heart rate variability (HRV).When we breathe in, our sympathetic nervous system speeds up our heart. When we breathe out, our vagus nerve releases a substance to slow down our heart through the parasympathetic nervous system. (You can remember that parasympathetic is like a parachute. Think of it like a rescue response. In certain situations, you definitely want a parachute!).
  • HRV correlates with many things including vagal tone. The better/higher the HRV, the healthier the heart, the better the cognitive function including memory, the less the stress, and less activation of the fight-flight-freeze response.

In other words, breathing in activates us and breathing out calms us and slows us down like a parachute that brings us to safety. So it makes sense that we want more of that safety, right?

It turns out that research agrees. When we slow down our breathing and have longer exhalations and shorter inhalations, we stimulate the vagus nerve in a really healthy way. This has been practiced in zen and yoga for centuries. (Bergland wrote a great article about this in 2019).

Kues1 for Adobe

The key seems to be the ratio of inhale time to exhale time. De Couck et al (2019) showed that breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 8 for even two minutes per day can make a huge difference.

Practicing this helps with thought processing, lowering anxiety and depression, helping with heart health, bringing oxygen into the blood, and feeling more in control.

This month (April, 2020), I did a podcast for Your Health Hustle Show and, at the end, I led the listeners in four minutes of this exercise. I had them breathe in for a count of 4 and out for a count of at least 8 (I like to go a little longer than 8 because I find it soothing). To bring in mindful compassion, I also added in this affirmation: “I breathe in all that I need for this moment. I breathe out love and compassion to myself and to the world.”

Would you like to try it?

Listen to the four minute exercise by listening to the podcast (you will find it at the end) or, to just hear the short breathing practice, click here.

Research shows that this breathing exercise calms the mind and body. You might like to practice this daily by counting those 10 breaths on your fingers. It takes very little time and can make a difference. Let me know how it goes!

This article previously appeared on www.drdyan.com on April 18, 2020

Featured image credit: Yabochuk for Adobe


  • Dyan Haspel-Johnson, Ph.D., S.E.P.®

    Psychologist & Hypnosis Expert

    Thrive Global

    Dr. Dyan Haspel-Johnson runs a private psychological and hypnotherapy practice with a specialty in hypnosis for sleep and other mind-body-spirit modalities. After receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Dr. Dyan earned her Ph.D. in psychology while working in a physician's holistic medical practice. Her creative and science based backgrounds inspire Dr. Dyan's unique way of thinking about healing. Her approach led her to become the Vice President of Continuing Education Programs for the Southern California Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and then to become President of that organization while also teaching at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and lecturing at many other institutions. Dr. Dyan's expertise with sleep, and the demand in her practice to help people to sleep better motivated Dr. Dyan to make the complimentary, downloadable eBook and video, "The 3 Biggest Things That Cause Sleep Problems & The ONE Thing You Can Do by 3pm Today to Sleep Better." She has also created the Deep & Easy Sleep Self-Hypnosis Package, available through her website.