On Breathing

I'm not very good at breathing. This may sound strange, because we obviously need to breathe to live. But I often find that I actually hold my breath – or breathe really shallowly – especially when I feel stressed, uneasy or anxious.

The other day I was walking home from the train station and feeling generally icky so I started to try to breathe more deeply. I immediately started to feel better, calmer and more grounded. And then I started to yawn, just like in yoga class after we've done the first breathing exercise. My body suddenly seemed to shake free of the tension I was holding and I felt better – and more human.

Obviously, this all sounds pretty hokey and new-agey, but there is actually something to be said for learning how to breathe well to help with everyday stress. I found a paper written by Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College, where she explains that our stress response system works within the autonomic nervous system consisting of two branches – sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system switches on when we feel threatened in a fight or flight scenario, increasing the heart rate, breathing and metabolic rate. When the threat has passed the parasympathetic system's role is to slow down these rates, repair any cellular damage and calm and replenish our energy, according to Gerbarg.

For people under stress or those with chronic anxiety (read more on research that we may be pre-disposed to anxiety, in my post Baby 19), the sympathetic system is in overdrive and the parasympathetic system is underactive. There are many medicines that can temporarily dampen the sympathetic system, however, there really isn't anything available to boost the parasympathetic system.

So that's where breathing techniques and other mind-body practices like meditation and yoga fit in. They are ways to boost the parasympathetic nervous system to keep that pesky sympathetic system in check.

I really like Leo Babuta's blog, called Zen Habits and his post on breathing pretty much says it all: click here to read about the many benefits of breathing. I particularly like the idea that you can always rely on taking a breath whenever something in your life starts to make you feel out of control, it's just so simple that one could really overlook it.


  1. I think about breathing a lot. There's a line from a Wu-tang song, lifted from a kung-fu movie where a man says: "The key (pause) is breath control. It's simple, you'll soon learn." That line goes through my mind all the time. Apparently in Kung-fu, breathing is what allows you to put your fist through bricks, and what Beatrix Kiddo used when she punched her way out of a wooden coffin, but I digress. What I wanted to comment was that breathing is also a way to a) infiltrate foreign situations and b) make other people feel comfortable. In situations where I'm "trying to blend" or where I feel intimidated, I've found that slowing down my breathing gives the impression to others that I am at ease. A person who is at ease is a person who belongs wherever they are. By extension, an at-ease demeanor makes it easier for someone else, whose tension makes them alert to tension in others, to relax and become more open. At least that's my theory. It's a physical extension of the "jedi mind trick." Yes, a Star Wars reference, I went there.

  2. The thing that most struck me about your comment is the sentence 'A person who is at ease is a person who belongs wherever they are.' I think that's really the essence of focusing on breathing -- trying to get back to the present moment and ignoring all the other chaos. I also like the idea of breathing to avoid feeling intimidated or to make others feel more at ease (especially the Star Wars reference -- a first for the blog!).


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