April 2, 2021. 3 min read
Breathing has a deep connection to our wellbeing. Intense inhales make us more alert, but slow exhales calm us down. Why is that? Science hints to what Asian cultures have known for thousands of years — the way we breathe affects the way we feel.
Breathing and The Nervous System
We breathe because our body needs to exchange gases. Cells need oxygen to power them, but cells also need to get rid of carbon dioxide which they emit as a byproduct. The nervous system regulates breathing to keep the concentration of both gases in our blood in a careful balance. Increased levels of carbon dioxide can lead to dizziness and anxiety — a clear sign to get some fresh air.
The nervous system is responsible for more than just the physical needs of our cells. It reacts to what is happening around us and mediates if we are awake and alert or relaxed and asleep.
The nervous system reacts to stress by increasing the heart rate and making us breahe faster. The goal is to make us more alert and ready to fight or flee! This happens irregardless if we are being chased by a lion or about to deliver a speech in front of a large audience.1
Breathing exercises with intense inhales achieve a similar result. Deep inhales expand the heart muscle and increase the heart rate.2 The net effect is that intense inhales make us feel more alert and focussed.
Try the Awake exercise, which can feel like having a shot of espresso:
• Inhale for 5 seconds
• Immediately exhale for 2 seconds
• Repeat 6 times without a pause
The opposite happens when we slow down our breathing and focus on exhaling. Long exhales physically compress the heart which makes the brain signal it to slow down. The nervous system starts to promote a calm state in order to let the body relax and recover. This is why breathing exercises that focus on long exhales are so calming and are frequently used in meditation.3
Slow breathing exercises are especially useful for dealing with anxiety and falling asleep.
• Inhale for 5 seonds
• Exhale for 5 seconds
• Repeat for 5-10 minutes for deep calm
The link between how we breathe and how we feel is at the heart of mindful breathing. It is what allows us to gain more control over our wellbeing.
Tips for Breathing Better
1) Breathe through your nose as much as possible. Nasal cavity has an important job — it makes the air warmer and cleaner before it enters the lungs.
2) Try to breathe with your belly without lifting your shoulders. Place your hand on your belly and feel it move back and forth with your every breath. Belly breathing will help you make the most of your lung capacity. Notice how babies do this naturally!
3) Perform mindful breathing exercises 2-3 times per day for 1-10 min. You don’t need any technology to practice mindful breathing, but an app like Breath Mojo can help to get started. Choose an exercise from the Energise category to boost your alertness or pick one from Relax to find your calm.
1. Sapolsky, R., 1994. Why zebras don't get ulcers. New York: W.H. Freeman.
2. Perry, S., Khovanova, N.A. & Khovanov, I.A. Control of heart rate through guided high-rate breathing. Sci Rep 9, 1545 (2019). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-38058-5
3. Nestor, J., 2020. Breath. Penguin Publishing Group.
Please note this is not medical advice. Do not assume the information provided here is fully complete or accurate — science is always progressing and evolving our understanding. It is not recommended to do breathing exercises while operating a vehicle or close to a body of water. Be mindful of your body and surroundings. Breathe well and live well!