Deep Breathing: Theory
Written by: By Luis Maimoni, LMFT #105978
Deep breathing is proven to help people feel better and live better. Even so, many people find that it doesn’t work for them. If you’ve tried deep breathing but can’t make it work, this article is for you. It’s broken into two parts – the theory of it, which explains how it works, and the practice of it, which explains how to do it. I’m including how it works – the ways it changes your body’s response to “triggers” – because understanding the mechanics of deep breathing may help you get better results from the how to do it section which follows.
The Theory (AKA How It Works)
Stress, anger, worry, grief – these emotions trigger our nervous systems and leave us feeling distressed. Done properly, deep breathing takes advantage of the way our nervous systems work to return us to calm.
Way back when, animals that could fight better, run faster, or stay hidden longer survived longer than those that lost the fight, couldn’t run fast enough, or were found. Animals that survived and were able to reproduce, reproduced; animals that did not, did not, generation after generation. Fast forward approximately 200,000 years, and “survival of the fittest” has evolved into what is often called the “fight or flight” response. In other words, when our bodies sense a threat, our brains send signals to our nervous systems, which in turn activate our bodies to survive the (real or imagined) threat.
This response comes in handy in the case of real danger because we experience a host of physical responses that prepare us to meet the threat. Our hearts beat faster, we breathe more shallowly, and our focus shifts from internal (like reading a book) to external (like looking over our shoulders for a threat). Our focus on what is external is why it is so hard to concentrate when we are nervous – our attention and energy are diverted towards the (external) threat.
The problem is that our bodies can deliver a massive dose of those same responses when we only need a little boost for top performance: when we’re getting ready to make a presentation at work or school, when we have an argument, or when we have to take a driving test. Too massive a dose can lead to panic attacks, but even everyday stress can lead to problems concentrating, high blood pressure, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and chronic pain. These instinctive responses — that helped us survive as a species — aren’t always helpful in our modern-day world.
The Nervous System
These responses are controlled by our nervous system. People who study the nervous system named its different parts. For the purpose of relaxation, we need to know about the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
Our sympathetic nerves are the ones which prepare your body for “fight or flight”: they dilate our pupils, increase our heartbeats, and make it so our stomachs slow down the processing of food. Our parasympathetic nerves do the opposite: they prepare our bodies for “rest and digest.” Our pupils constrict, our stomachs and salivary glands go back to work, our heartbeats slow, and our breathing returns to normal.
The sympathetic/parasympathetic responses are automatic; most of us can leave it to our bodies to figure out how much “fight or flight” we need, and when we need it. Some of us, though, find that our bodies are stuck on stressed (or anxious or angry or…). Our sympathetic nervous systems keep getting us ready to respond to a nonexistent threat, leaving our nerves raw and on edge.
Deep Breathing and the Nervous System
Here is where “deep breathing” comes in: we have learned that we can use breathing to return control to our parasympathetic nervous system’s responses. When we take slow and deep breaths, pulling air all the way down into our cores, we are signaling to our sympathetic system that there is no threat, that it is OK to return to “rest and digest” mode. It only works, however, if we engage in truly deep and slow breathing.
This is where we struggle with deep breathing: we would not be trying to use deep breathing if our bodies were not already stressed. Because we are stressed, it feels more natural to do the opposite of deep breathing. Shallow and short breaths feel right; using deep and long breaths feels like we’re going against our own bodies and instincts.
It feels that way because we are: we are overriding our instinctive responses and activating our parasympathetic systems. We are using deep breathing to tell our bodies that it’s time to calm down, get centered, and start paying attention. Our bodies are thinking something else entirely! So: know that we are overriding our instinctive responses… and know that everything will be OK.
Bringing about calm and relaxation in ourselves is an intentional process, described in the next part of this blog: DEEP BREATHING: The Practice.