From a very young age we’ve been coached that taking a deep breath can help heal us in sticky situations. When you scrape your knee while learning to ride a bike, you’re consoled and told to “calm down and take a breath.” Later in life when faced with an inevitable conflict in the workplace, the moderators of the group will tell everyone to breathe and count to ten to defuse a heated argument.
Although these suggestions may have been learned through upbringing or an HR seminar, the reasoning behind the is based on solid science; human physiology and more specifically our parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the body’s automatic system that allows us to perform basic acts without thinking about them. You’ve probably taken over 50 breaths just reading this article, or maybe 30 if you’re a speed reader, without the need to consciously think about each one. It also oversees a number of other important functions such as heart rate, immune response, digestion and control of mood.
When we are threatened or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system, the one responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response, kicks in releasing epinephrine (or adrenaline) cascading a series of automated responses such as, increased heart rate, dilated pupils, muscle tension and accelerated breathing. As the threat subsides, our parasympathetic nervous system steps in to halt the stress response and bring our body back to a calmer state.
So what does this have to do with breathing?
If you are under a high level of stress, diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and put the brakes on our “fight-or-flight” response leading to reduced stress and anxiety. A myriad of studies have shown this relationship and its importance on healthcare.