• Published March 25, 2020
  • 6 Minute Read

Why You Shouldn’t “Take a Deep Breath” When You’re Stressed

Published March 25, 2020
Why You Shouldn’t “Take a Deep Breath” When You’re Stressed

What Does Deep Breathing Do for the Body?

With the uncertainty of the current circumstances overtaking our lives, many of us are finding ourselves in situations that provoke anxiety on a daily basis.

Maybe you received an email from your boss saying, “We need to talk.” You quickly began to dread the meeting. Thoughts of what might be wrong, or how you might explain yourself, flooded your mind.

When it was finally time to talk, your body’s anxiety reaction was in full swing. Perhaps first you noticed a drop in your stomach. Then once you got on the phone with your boss, your heart started beating more quickly and your hands began to sweat.

As these symptoms continued, you noticed your breathing becoming more rapid and shallow. Your mind raced through possible ways to calm yourself, and you remembered the well-intentioned saying, “Take a deep breath!”

In line with this advice, you began to inhale deeply … But wait! How helpful is that suggestion, really?

Most people have been told at some point that taking deep breaths can have a calming effect, but does it really help to take a deep breath?

The short answer is no.

To understand why taking a deep breath might actually be counterproductive, we must first understand the fundamentals of the human breathing process.

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The Physics of Breathing

Breathing is automatic — that is, most of the time we breathe without being fully aware of it. Breathing is controlled by our body’s autonomic nervous system. This system is made up of 2 divisions:

  • The sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response; and
  • The parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body after stimulation.

These 2 systems parallel the breathing process. When we inhale, our diaphragm moves down and the volume in our thoracic cavity increases as our lungs fill with air. As they fill, they also begin to compress the walls of the heart, which in turn restricts blood flow going into and out of the heart.

To compensate for this restriction, our heart rate increases, stimulating our fight-or-flight response. When we exhale, our diaphragm moves up and the volume in our thoracic cavity decreases as our lungs empty the air inside them, which relaxes our bodies.

In short, it’s actually our exhale, not our inhale, that helps our body relax.

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Does Taking a Deep Breath Actually Help You Relax?

Now that we’ve described the breathing process, let’s take a look at the recommendation to “take a deep breath.”  If you do this rapidly, it can lead to over-breathing, which can be broadly defined as a breathing pattern that results in breathing out too much carbon dioxide, which, in turn, results in less blood flowing to your brain (i.e., hyperventilating).

Typically, we begin to overbreathe when we’re in a panicked or stressed state.

People who tell you to “take a deep breath” probably think they’re preventing over-breathing by keeping you from hyperventilating. The thing is, taking in a lot of air and holding it in is still over-breathing. You’re still activating your sympathetic nervous system.

Use Deep Breathing to Help Your Body Relax

So, what should you do? Although it’s perfectly natural to respond to anxiety and uncertainty with panicked over-breathing, the good news is that we also have the ability to control our breathing rate and therefore our mental state.

We can change our breathing. This means we can train ourselves to respond to over-breathing with an intentional breathing pattern designed to promote relaxation instead.

So as you sit on the phone with your boss trying to manage your anxiety symptoms, rather than taking a deep breath, focus on extending the exhale.

Some researchers recommend a specific ratio of inhalation to exhalation that can be practiced at the moment when wanting to achieve a more relaxed breathing state. For example, Inna Kahzan, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, recommends a 4:6 ratio — 40% of the breath cycle spent on inhalation, and 60% of the breath cycle spent on exhalation.

With this practice, she recommends “low and slow” diaphragmatic breathing, where you “pay attention to the location of the breath, smooth transition from exhalation to inhalation, long and complete exhalation, without focusing on the depth of the inhalation.”

Though the exact breath count that’s most helpful for you may vary based on your natural breathing rate (some people tend to breathe at a higher/lower rate than others), a rough estimate of what this ratio would look like is to inhale for a count of 1 … 2 … 3 … 4, and then exhale for a count of 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6, where each count lasts one second.

It’s worth mentioning that the focus on extended exhalation as a way to relax your breathing is not a new concept. In fact, many yoga traditions have extended exhalation as a core part of their practice. Some researchers have tested the effects of pranayama yoga breathing, where the inhalation-to-exhalation ratio is 1:2, in patients with asthma.

Practice Deep Breathing: Reduce Stress by Focusing on Your Exhale, Not Your Inhale

The next time you’re feeling stressed, take a minute to guide yourself, “Breathe in: 1 … 2 … 3 … 4, and breathe out: 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6.”

Focus on normal inhalations, neither too short nor too long, and then extend your exhalation.

You’ll begin to notice yourself calming down, which in turn will better enable you to focus on your upcoming challenges. Yet like most things, using breathing to regulate your nervous system takes practice, so it’s important to make extended exhalations a part of your daily routine.

Regardless of your emotional state, take time to practice extended exhalations for 2–5 minutes (or until you notice your breathing rate relax) every day. This can be part of building your mindfulness as a leader.

As with any habit, daily practice will strengthen your ability to engage in extended exhalation when in a state of high anxiety, panic, or stress.

Finally, encourage your friends and family to adopt a similar breathing practice when in a state of anxiety. So rather than telling people to “Take a deep breath” when something unexpected or stress-inducing happens, instead adopt the advice, “Extend your exhale!”

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  • Published March 25, 2020
  • 6 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Katya Fernandez
Katya Fernandez, PhD
Former Research Scientist

A licensed psychologist, Katya led research studies focused on applying cognitive-behavioral theory to leadership development. She has authored over 25 peer-reviewed articles, primarily published in academic journals and books.

A licensed psychologist, Katya led research studies focused on applying cognitive-behavioral theory to leadership development. She has authored over 25 peer-reviewed articles, primarily published in academic journals and books.

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