Why do we stress?

Our body is composed of thousands of control systems in charge of detecting change caused by disruptors and mediating that change. This body function is called homeostasis and when it is disrupted by stressors, we experience anxiety and stress.

These stressors could be a perceived threat, an intrusive thought, or even a stack of emails on a Monday morning. They trigger the body's sympathetic nervous system and create a ‘fight-or-flight’ response that releases stress hormones known as cortisol and adrenaline.

When this happens it means that the body is preparing for a rapid physical response. The outcome is muscular tension, an increased heart rate, and shallower breathing.

What makes us calm?

The parasympathetic nervous system promotes calmness, relaxation, and digestion. As breathing becomes slower and deeper, your heart rate decreases and muscles relax. This is when conscious breathing comes in. You can use your breath to help the regulation of the parasympathetic impulses.

Here are four deep breathing techniques that engage the parasympathetic nervous system. They are simple yet effective, and you can practice them in the comfort of your own home.


1. The 4-7-8 breathing technique

Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D., developed this effective breathing exercise. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and stimulates the vagus nerve, the highway between the brain and the gastronomical tract. It also plays a major role in stress management, mood control, and brain function.

Here’s how this breathing technique works:

  • Get comfortable. You can do this sitting or lying down
  • Close your eyes, if you feel comfortable
  • Begin by exhaling deeply and empty your diaphragm
  • Take a deep breath through your nose for a 4 second count. Feel your lungs expanding with air
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Remain relaxed throughout
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Continue until your lungs are empty. Imagine letting go of any tension or stress while doing so
  • Repeat the cycle 4 times

The 4-7-8 technique has proven reducing patients' anxiety in clinical trials and supporting the management of emotional responses and sleep quality.

2. Box breathing or the 4-4-4 technique

If you find that the 4-7-8 technique is too advanced, you can start by practicing box breathing. It is a simple relaxation technique that involves four steps:

  • Get comfortable. You can be sitting or lying down
  • Step 1: Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds
  • Step 3: Exhale for 4 seconds
  • Step 4: Pause for 4 seconds before repeating the cycle

Box breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The result is increased oxygen to the lungs, regulated breath, and a lowered heart rate.

3. The Psychological Sigh

The psychological sigh is a breathing technique with major health benefits such as:

  • mood regulation
  • stress relief
  • increased productivity
  • reduced anxiety

David Spiegel, MD, and neurobiologist Andrew Huberman conducted a study on this exercise. They found that it is the most effective breathing exercise in managing stress. Longer exhalations calm the autonomic nervous system. They reduce stress and anxiety and reduce psychological arousal.

Here’s how it works:

  • Get comfortable. You can be sitting or lying down
  • Take a deep breath through the nose, followed by a second deeper breath also through the nose
  • Slowly exhale all the air through the mouth

Diaphragmatic breathing of this kind stimulates the vagus nerve and reduces the stress responses in association with the sympathetic nervous system.


4. Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing is another breathing exercise that increases the parasympathetic activity.

It involves deep controlled breaths at a rate of about 6 seconds per breath. The goal is to achieve a state of resonance, which is when your breathing and heart rate are in sync. This results in immediate calmness and can be taught using biofeedback equipment from Oxa.

Also Read: Instant Calm: Quick Breathing Exercises for Stess Relief

What is biofeedback?

Biofeedback has been used in clinical settings in the past and can be used in everyday situations nowadays.

It is a self-regulation technique that teaches you how to modify your physiology and reduces sympathetic arousal related to stress. It improves your physical, mental, and emotional health.

There are existing wearable devices on the market that track biofeedback and Oxa is the first wearable device that offers live biofeedback in real-time.

This is how Oxa wearable device works:

  • Oxa instantly reads your vitals such as your breathing rate and your heart rate variability
  • Oxa then uses that data to provide audible feedback on your sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
  • It also calculates your state of resonance (when your heart and breathing rate are in sync)
  • Finally, it teaches you how to achieve resonance by adjusting your breathing and responding to the live biofeedback signals

Daily anxiety and poor health need not be a characterization of our modern existence, thanks to the wonders of live biofeedback. We have the knowledge and the means to revolutionize our overall wellbeing at our fingertips.

Also Read: Oxa's Transformation: Finding Calm Amid Chaos


Q: What is the autonomic nervous system?

The autonomic nervous system is the center of the body responsible for regulating involuntary physiologic responses, such as blood pressure, heart rate, sexual arousal, digestion and respiration. It is a component of the peripheral nervous system and comprises three distinct systems: sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric.

Q: Where is the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve finds its origin in the brain stem and runs through the neck and thorax into the abdomen. Also known as vagal nerves, they form the predominant part of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve plays an important role in the body’s involuntary sensory and motor functions.

Q: What is the "heart-rate-variability" or HRV?

HRV is a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. These minor fluctuations in your heartbeat are undetectable without specialized devices. HRV is a normal occurrence in healthy individuals and changes depending on activity. A slower heart rate indicates rest or relaxation, and a faster heart rate may occur during exercise, and moments of stress or danger.

Hakima Tantrika
May 28, 2024

MA, RYT 500, and ICF-certified coach is a holistic physical and mental health writer and educator. With global recognition, she's enriched over 2 million readers through her blog and shaped 800+ instructors worldwide. Fluent in four languages, Hakima blends extensive knowledge and a rich multicultural insight, making her a distinguished authority in the wellness sphere.

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