Breathing. It’s something we do all the time but are rarely aware of it. Although usually involuntary, breathing can also be purposely controlled. You often hear the suggestion to “just breathe” when frantic feelings arise. There’s more than a cliché in that counsel. Focusing on your breathing has been shown to not only provide relief from stress and anxiety, but it may also help lower blood pressure and heart rate and boost your immune system.

Called controlled, or coherent or deep breathing, this technique is common in Eastern cultures, but the science behind it is called “full oxygen exchange.” This means that more oxygen enters the body and more carbon dioxide exits. There are many variations of how to practice controlled breathing, but the basic mechanics are:

  • Sit upright or lay down
  • Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of five, expanding your abdomen with your diaphragm
  • Pause and hold your breath for a count of three
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of six
  • Do this several times in a row, aiming to practice this for 10-20 minutes a day

How can something so simple override our feelings of stress or anxiety? It helps to understand the underlying physical processes. Stressful situations can trigger our sympathetic nervous system, the “fight-or-flight” mechanism that readies our body for intense physical activity. While in this mode, our adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol which increases our heart rate and breathing, contracts our muscles and jump-starts our energy level. This natural response is designed to protect us, but being in this state repeatedly or on a consistent basis can be harmful.

Consciously changing the way you breathe can counteract this “fight-or-flight” response and in turn activate the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the “rest and digest” mechanism. This will slow your heart rate, relax your body and produce a general sense of calm. Practiced over time, controlled breathing can have positive effects on symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder.

Another form of controlled breathing includes energizing (ha) breathing. This is a great thing to do to combat the midafternoon slump:

  • Stand up tall, elbows bent, palms facing up
  • As you inhale, draw your elbows back behind you, palms continuing to face up
  • Then exhale quickly, thrusting your palms forward and turning them downward, while saying “Ha” out loud
  • A variation of this is to lift your shoulders to your ears with the in-breath, then drop them quickly with the “ha” out- breath
  • Repeat quickly 10 to 15 times

Next time you feel stress and tension welling up, commit to focusing on your breathing. Step away for a few moments and find a quiet place to try some of the above techniques. It may seem silly at first, but with practice you’ll feel more comfortable. I found a saying that conveys the value of controlled breathing:

“Slow breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t make the storm go away, but it will hold you steady until it passes.”

May your next voyage lead you to calmer waters!