A practical guide to breathing.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a scientist or a doctor, but I am an expert at breathing—I do it all the time.

After my last post, I got a few questions about breathing. So, here’s the spiel I give to my students in public speaking class about breathing. It’s basically a crash course into calming your body down.

I’m going to get "sciency" here for a hot second—stick with me.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for all of the body functions that are automated—the functions we don’t consciously need to think about for them to occur that are either involuntarily or reflexive. Some of these functions are breathing, blood flow, digestion, and the list goes on. Within the ANS there is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The PNS is responsible for all of the functions that return the body to a state or relaxing or equilibrium aka “rest and digest”. The SNS is responsible for fast acting responses or adrenaline responses because the adrenal gland is stimulated when this system is activated aka “fight or flight”.

Before you can understand how to calm down, you need to understand why we get worked up.

As humans we have a fear response that used to be what we needed to keep us alive. Our bodies would go into fight or flight mode when we would encounter say, lions or tigers or bears (oh my!). The fight or flight response is when the body senses danger and shuts down non-essential body functions (i.e. digestion, the immune system, blood flow to non-essential organs and functions, etc.). This is all thanks to the SNS. The problem is that we rarely encounter lions and tigers and bears in our everyday lives out in the world in 2017. Our bodies are still stuck in primal mode though and whenever we are fearful (even if it’s of something non-life-threatening such as public speaking, talking to our boss, a deadline, crowds—or whatever spikes your heart rate) our SNS is stimulated. Why is this a problem? When we have our SNS constantly stimulated we live in a state of “fight or flight” and our non-essential functions can’t happen. This is why when you are stressed out you get headaches, issues with your digestion, stomach pains, and so on. The fight or flight mode is not sustainable—our bodies will suffer and deteriorate if left in this state for too long.

The good news is that we don’t have to live in this state of fear and we can learn to stimulate our PNS and regain “rest and digest”. How? Breathing. One way out of the stress state is to breathe. By breathing we are telling our bodies that we are ok. More specifically, bringing awareness to the breath and slowing the breath down stimulates the Vagus nerve. The Vagus who?? The Vagus nerve, or wandering nerve, extends from your brainstem and goes on through your facial muscles, throat, lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines. All of those are major players in the PNS and have crossover with the SNS. So, if we stimulate the Vagus nerve with slow and controlled breathing, we can shift from a state of elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, contracted muscles, and return to lowered heart rate, relaxed muscles, saliva returns to your mouth and digestion starts back up. Cortisol (stress hormone) lowers and Ahhhhh, you can relax.

But I breathe ALL DAY LONG and I still feel stressed out. Excellent point. Here is the short practical guide to breathing for relaxation:

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Breathe in through your nose to a count of five. As you breathe in focus on your belly filling up first, then your chest expanding, and finally, your collarbones lifting and expanding.
  3. Stay full for a moment of pause and then begin to exhale to the count of 7.
  4. Release your breath through your nose in the opposite way you filled—lowering and  contracting the collarbones, then the chest, and finally the belly.
    • Pro-tip: Try constricting the back of your throat to create a noisy breath with an “hhhhh” sound—as if you were breathing to fog a mirror. In yoga, this is called the breath of  Ujjayi.
  5. Stay empty for a pause and then go back to step 2.
  6. Keep repeating these steps for a couple minutes or until you feel your body begin to return to calm.

There are many ways to reduce stress, stimulate the Vagus nerve, and to return to a state of rest and digest. Breathing is one option and it is so great because you can do it ANYWHERE. Also, this is just one of many kinds of breathing techniques—there are so many kinds of breathing but this is a great place to start. As Dory always says, “Just keep breathing”—or something like that ;-).


Stress: Fight or flight response. (2017). In Psychologist World. Retrieved from https://www.psychologistworld.com/stress/fight-or-flight-response

Hansen, F. (2017, November 17). "Fight or flight" vs. "rest and digest". In The Adrenal Fatigue Solution. Retrieved from https://adrenalfatiguesolution.com/fight-or-flight-vs-rest-and-digest/

Schwartz, A. (2015, July 19). Natural vagus nerve stimulation- Dr. Arielle Schwartz. In Dr. Arielle Schwartz. Retrieved from http://drarielleschwartz.com/natural-vagus-nerve-stimulation-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.Wi1ZoLQ-dsM

YJ Editors. (2007, August 28). Conqueror breath. In Yoga Journal. Retrieved from https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/conqueror-breath    

Lisa SchuellerComment