How many times have you been told to breathe deeply, only to find that it’s just not the answer to your problem?

 In this article, I’ll be explaining why deep breathing isn’t the universal solution to anxiety, stress and worry that the internet tells you it is, and what you should be doing instead that WILL work for you. 

So you’ve been stressing out about something, and some article or guru is telling you that a few deep breaths will sort you out. You tried it and that anxious or stress feeling didn’t go away right? Well this is because the vast majority of gurus don’t understand the science of breathing and how it affects your neurology. So you’ve come to the right place.

Autonomic Nervous System overview

Breathing is inextricably linked to our nervous system, which consists of two sides, the sympathetic nervous system, that raises our heart rate and gets us ready to deal with challenge, and the parasympathetic nervous system which lowers our heart rate and allows us to rest and recover from stressors. When we are healthy and relaxed, our breathing, which consists of an in breath and an out breath, is even, and this is because our sympathetic and parasympathetic branches are in a kind of dance. When we breathe in, our sympathetic branch is activated and our heart rate and blood pressure go up, and when we breathe out, or heart rate and blood pressure go down. It’s a natural ebb and flow that keeps our nervous system regulated. If you measured your heart rate variability when you are relaxed and happy, you should see a nice sine wave. Heart Rate Variability is covered in more depth here.

Now in situations where we are stressed or anxious, our sympathetic nervous system, which you will often hear described as the “Fight or Flight” mode, is already on alert. Our heart rate is elevated, our adrenal glands are on overdrive and we are already, at least unconsciously, worried about our safety.

Breathing and Heart Rate Variability

So when we take big breaths in, these enormous gulps of air, we are further activating our sympathetic nervous system. Effectively we ramp up our nervous system even further, elevating our heart rate and, if you are easily made anxious, or find yourself triggered by things, then you could find yourself panicking, overworrying, overthinking and unable to sleep. This is of course the OPPOSITE of what you want. So actually deep breathing is not the answer. The answer is, in fact, to ramp up your parasympathetic nervous system, which is activated by the OUT breath. How do you do that? By taking small, gentle breaths in, and breathing them out for as long as you comfortably can. In gently, out slowly.

When you are feeling calmer, you can then move to what’s called balanced breathing, which is a slow, gentle breath in for 6 seconds, and then out for 6 seconds. This method is covered in more detail in my video for the Heartmath Quick Coherence technique.

So remember. When you find yourself stressed, anxious or triggered by something, take a gentle breath in, and SLOW breath out. Keep doing this until you feel calmer, and then gently balance a slow breath in and a slow breath out.