You are at work drowning in paperwork and deadlines. The feeling of panic is setting in, and your coworker says to you, “Just take a deep breath.” It’s a phrase that we all have heard and have rolled our eyes at. This may sound the same as telling someone on an angry rampage to simply “calm down.” However, to those who know the science behind stress, this is one of the best pieces of advice out there.
How can something as small as taking a deep breath actually help when we are feeling overwhelmed?
Your arousal level is controlled by two forces—the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Most of the time, we are functioning at a balance between the two. The SNS is what gets you riled up in response to stressors (fight or flight response). The PNS is what slows you down. The systems release hormones that direct our behavior and responses to stress.
This may seem complicated, but controlling your nervous systems and response to stress comes down to something we are doing all the time—breathing. When you feel anxious, a common indicator is shortened or rapid breath. That’s the SNS kicking in. Amazingly, taking control of your breathing by taking deliberate, long, deep, breaths can activate the PNS. After 5-6 deep breathes, we can immediately feel the effects of stress reducing hormones flowing through our bodies.
When you are frustrated, you often let out a deep sigh and then feel some relief. This is the same idea on a smaller scale. The power of breath is regularly part of yoga and meditation practices, but you don’t have to be a yogi to reap the benefits. Deep breathing is a common technique used in counseling and can do wonders in reducing anxiety in the moment. Our breathing can also help us in athletic activities. Think about long jumpers who are about to take off; I’m willing to bet that they typically take deep breaths to calm the mind and body to prepare for what is about to happen.
Stress can come from so many different things and present itself in many different ways. We can’t change the fact that stress is going to be a part of our lives. What we can change is how we respond. Deep breathing is a small trick that can help you feel more in control of your stress level. After all, not all stress is bad! An optimum stress level allows us to be aroused and alert when it counts—like during presentations, when crunching numbers, and when making new connections in the work place! I encourage you to notice your body’s response to stress and see how deep breathing can benefit you.