At some point in your life, you’ve likely experienced an upsetting situation that provoked anxiety.
We’ve all been there! 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 meet, your body’s anxiety reaction was in full swing. Perhaps first you noticed a drop in your stomach. Then, once you sat down at your boss’ desk, your heart started beating more quickly and your hands began to sweat.
As these symptoms continued, you noticed your breathing become more rapid and shallow—it felt hard to breathe. 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 this advice? Most people have been told at some point that taking deep breaths can have a calming effect, but is this really true? 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.
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 (SNS), which stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response
- the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which relaxes the body after stimulation
These 2 systems nicely 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 (SNS). When we exhale, our diaphragm moves up and the volume in our thoracic cavity decreases as our lungs empty the air inside them, and our heart rate decreases (PNS).
In short: it is actually our exhale (not our inhale) that’s linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps our body 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 overbreathing, 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 are preventing overbreathing by keeping you from hyperventilating. The thing is, taking in a lot of air and holding it in is still overbreathing! You’re still activating your sympathetic nervous system.
The Helpful Way to Breathe
So, what should you do? Although it’s perfectly natural to respond to anxiety and panic with overbreathing, the good news is that we also have the ability to affect our breathing rate. We can change our breathing. This means we can train ourselves to respond to overbreathing with an intentional breathing pattern designed to promote relaxation.
As you sit at your boss’ desk trying to manage your anxiety symptoms, rather than taking a deep breath, focus on activating the PNS (i.e., lower breath and heart rate)—in other words, focus on extending the exhale. Pay attention to your exhale — a little more attention to your exhale can make a difference.
Some researchers recommend a specific ratio of inhalation to exhalation that can be practiced in 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 is most helpful for you may vary based on your natural breathing rate (some people tend to breath 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. For example, some researchers have tested the effects of pranayama yoga breathing, where the inhalation to exhalation ratio is 1:2, in patients with asthma.
Breathing Takes Practice
Take a minute to guide yourself, “Breath 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 the exhalation. You will 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. 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.
Rather than “Take a deep breath,” adopt the motto “Extend your exhale!”