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Why Deep Breathing Can Be Helpful for Anxiety—According to Science

Parents direct their children to do it. Teachers teach it in their classrooms. Therapists teach it during sessions and help you learn ways to incorporate it into your life. Chances are, someone has suggested deep breathing as a path towards relaxation at some point in your life.

But why?

As it turns out, there are lots of good reasons to employ deep breathing as a calming tool, according to science.

One of the major reasons that deep breathing can be so effective is due to its effect on the autonomic nervous system. What exactly is that? Let’s discuss.

The autonomic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that is tasked with regulating the functions of your internal organs. Heartbeat, digestion, blood pressure, sweating, breathing—these are some of the functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Much of the autonomic nervous system’s job is involuntary; that is, we don’t have control over many aspects of it, except for breathing.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for keeping us safe. It controls the fight or flight reflex that is initiated when we encounter a threat. It spurs the release of adrenaline and cortisol, speeds up your heart rate, prepares your muscles for running or fighting, and can even cause your digestive or urinary systems to empty. It is no surprise, then, that an activated sympathetic nervous system can result in feelings of anxiety, and that anxiety may result in an increased heart rate, stomach problems, sweating, temperature fluctuations, tense muscles, and more.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite. Its job is to bring bodily functions back to baseline, to calm the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and allow for proper digestion.

The parasympathetic nervous system is controlled by the vagus nerve, which is the longest cranial nerve in the human body. As it turns out, deep, diaphragmatic breaths can actually stimulate the vagus nerve, which sends messages to the brain to relax the body. Blood flow increases, endorphins release, and the sympathetic nervous system is calmed. Fascinating, right?

What this looks like for children: Try Elmo's Belly Breathing Song

What this looks like for adolescents: Try GoZen! Deep Breathing Exercise

What this looks like for adults: Try Dr. Belisa Vranich: How To Breathe From Your Belly

One thing to remember: In case of severe and chronic anxiety, sometimes the sympathetic response can be really strong. This may be a sign of a brain that has worked so hard to keep you safe, it is unwilling to give up the guard, even when the need has passed! Deep breathing can still be helpful in activating the parasympathetic nervous system; however, it may not remove the anxiety entirely. If you are experiencing this kind of anxiety, we welcome you to contact us, or a therapist near you, for additional support.

So there it is: a brain-based explanation for all that emphasis on deep breathing. According to science, deep, diaphragmatic breathing truly stimulates calming on a physiological level. It certainly can’t hurt, so why not give it a try? Take that, anxiety!

Download the above infographic HERE

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