Inhale. Exhale. Repeat: Control your feelings through breathing

Do you know you can change how you feel both physically and emotionally by changing how you breathe? Breathing is one of the most basic human activities, and learning to control it strategically can lower your stress, manage unhelpful emotions, and improve your long-term health.

When your emotions aren’t helpful, you can actually decrease or increase their intensity through your breathing. Think of the last time a powerful feeling such as anxiety or anger made it difficult to do something you needed to do, such as clearing a room, staying vigilant while out on patrol, or having a tough conversation. It can be difficult to change these intense emotions using thoughts alone, so learning to use your breath can become a very effective tool. Instead of talking (or thinking) your way out of your emotions, you can learn to breathe your way through them.

Breath and your nervous system

Your breathing is connected—through your brain and nervous system—to how you feel physically and emotionally. This is because your autonomic nervous system, or ANS—the part of your overall nervous system that controls your breathing—also helps regulate every other system in your body, including your endocrine (hormone), cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems. Like the pedals in your car, your ANS can either speed up or slow down your systems. The ANS generally runs on autopilot and is managed by two complementary systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is your accelerator.

Your SNS works like the gas pedal in your car, accelerating your breathing to help you pursue goals and avoid threats. This “fight or flight” system turns on and can be helpful when you need to react and respond quickly. However, getting stuck in this gear wears you down, and then it’s connected with negative physical and mental health consequences, including poor sleep, decreased sex drive, indigestion, constipation, and being more vulnerable to infections. When your SNS runs in overdrive, it can leave you feeling stressed, fatigued, irritated, anxious, or depressed.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is your brake.

The PNS controls your relaxation response, slows you down, and quiets your SNS. One way to take your body off autopilot is to control your breathing. You can slow your breathing with steady, full breaths and by increasing the length of your exhales. Doing this activates the PNS, which relaxes your muscles and sends feedback to your brain that all is well. When you’re relaxed, it’s hard to feel stressed or upset. In fact, your relaxation response slows the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure to healthy levels. Not only does this response counterbalance stress, it also can boost immunity, increase alertness, and improve your metabolism. Controlled breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.

Bottom line

In addition to helping emotions, controlling how you breathe can regulate your body’s cognitive and physical responses. Each time you calm the SNS and turn on the PNS by slowing and lengthening your breath, you improve your ability to relax quickly and effectively in critical environments. With practice, the hardwired tendency to always look for and react to threats weakens while new and effective ways to manage your performance, relationships, and well-being strengthen. To learn how to build a regular practice of breathing and improve your well-being, watch HPRC’s “Basics of Belly Breathing” video below.

 

Resources

Bhasin, M. K., Dusek, J. A., Chang, B.-H., Joseph, M. G., Denninger, J. W., . . . Libermann, T. A. (2013). Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS ONE, 8(5), e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817

Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 16(5), 605–627. doi:10.1080/02699930143000392

Seppälä, E. M., Nitschke, J. B., Tudorascu, D. L., Hayes, A., Goldstein, M. R., Nguyen, D. T. H., . . . Davidson, R. J. (2014). Breathing-based meditation decreases posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in U.S. military Veterans: A randomized controlled longitudinal study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 27(4), 397–405. doi:10.1002/jts.21936

Yackle, K., Schwarz, L. A., Kam, K., Sorokin, J. M., Huguenard, J. R., Feldman, J. L., . . . Krasnow, M. A. (2017). Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice. Science, 355(6332), 1411–1415. doi:10.1126/science.aai7984