The Science Behind Deep Breathing

At its core, deep breathing is about engaging our body's built-in mechanisms for relaxation. It's fascinating how our nervous system, responsible for involuntary actions like heart rate and digestion, holds the key.

This system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest-and-relax response.

During moments of stress or anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear, leading to rapid, shallow breathing. This reaction can exacerbate feelings of fear, creating a vicious cycle. However, by consciously shifting to deep, diaphragmatic breathing, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, effectively reducing stress and anxiety.

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Engaging the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Now, at the heart of our body's relaxation system is a remarkable nerve called the vagus nerve. This nerve acts like a communication superhighway, sending messages of peace and calm throughout our bodies. When we engage in deep breathing, we tap into this nerve's power to spread a "relax" signal far and wide.

Here's how it works: When we take deep, slow breaths, we're doing more than just filling our lungs with air. We're also sending a message down the vagus nerve that it's time to kick the parasympathetic nervous system into gear. This system then works its magic by slowing down our heartbeat and lowering our blood pressure — two reactions that are direct opposites of the body's stress response. It's like applying a gentle brake in a car, gradually bringing it to a smooth stop.

This shift doesn't just feel good; it also counters the body's state of high alert that comes with anxiety. By breathing deeply, we're essentially telling our body, "Hey, it's okay. We can relax now." And the beautiful part is that our body listens. This is why deep breathing is such a powerful tool for calming the mind and reducing anxiety. It leverages our body's own built-in systems to bring about a state of peace and relaxation.

In essence, deep breathing is a direct line to our body's relaxation response, offering a simple yet profound way to influence our mental and physical well-being.

Learn More: Breathe Out Stress: Chronic Stress and Its Impact on Your Health

Deep Breathing and Its Benefits

Embarking on deep breathing involves more than just taking slow breaths; it's about changing the source of those breaths from your chest to your diaphragm. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, activates a large, dome-shaped muscle, your diaphragm, located at the base of the lungs. When you breathe deeply through your diaphragm rather than shallowly from your chest, you're engaging in a powerful form of breathwork that has several significant benefits, apart from lowering down your stress levels


  1. Enhanced Oxygen Exchange: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing allows for greater oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. This improved exchange enhances the oxygenation of your blood, which can increase energy levels and improve overall bodily function.
  2. Stimulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System: It helps stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Activation of this system promotes relaxation and can reduce stress levels, helping to counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system's "fight or flight" response.
  3. Improved Respiratory Efficiency: Diaphragmatic breathing improves the efficiency of the respiratory system, requiring less energy for the act of breathing. This can be particularly beneficial for people with respiratory conditions, athletes looking to improve their performance, and individuals aiming to enhance their meditation or yoga practices.
  4. Lower Blood Pressure: Regular practice of deep, diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is likely due to its calming effect on the body, which helps to relax blood vessels and improve circulation.
  5. Reduced Muscle Tension: By encouraging relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing can relieve tension in the muscles, including those around the neck and shoulders, which are common areas for tension accumulation due to stress.

How to practice deep breathing:

  1. Find a Comfortable Position: Sit or lie down in a place where you won't be disturbed. Close your eyes to help focus inward.
  2. Shift to Diaphragmatic Breathing: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Focus on pushing your stomach out as you breathe in, aiming for longer, fuller breaths. Count to at least three for each inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Observe and Adjust: Initially, this practice might feel uncomfortable, but with time, your body will begin to relax. The key is noticing the difference deep breathing makes in your physiological and emotional state.

Enhancing Your Practice

Deep breathing is simple, but mastering it requires patience and consistency. Experiment with different patterns! Try longer exhalations: inhale for four counts and exhale for six, or practice square breathing. The goal is slow, mindful breaths that engage the diaphragm.

For some, guiding their own deep breathing can be challenging. Utilizing guided breathwork apps or even joining a breathwork group can provide structure and support. Remember, the journey to mastering deep breathing is personal and unique.

Final Thoughts

Deep breathing isn't a quick fix, but a skill that, when practiced regularly, can significantly reduce anxiety and improve your quality of life. It's a testament to the power of turning inward and using our natural physiology to instill a sense of peace. As someone who has walked the path from anxiety to calm, I encourage you to explore deep breathing as a cornerstone of your mental wellness toolkit. Take the first step with Oxa and embark on your path to inner calm today.

Dean Stott
May 28, 2024

CBT, CPD, an educator, coach, and ambassador, is the visionary founder behind DLCanxiety, the world's largest anxiety support community established in 2018. With a following exceeding 1 million, his platform serves as a pivotal space for open dialogues on mental health. Dean's mission is to reassure individuals they're not alone in their recovery journey, making his platform a premier resource for understanding and navigating the complexities of anxiety disorder.

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