You’ve heard it a hundred times: “calm down, take a deep breath” as well-meaning advice on how to handle stress. But does it actually work? And if so, how?
It’s all a part of the miraculous design of the human body. Our autonomic nervous system consists of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system orchestrates all of our fight or flight reflexes. Think rapid breathing and the adrenaline you associate with stress. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is initiated by slow, deep- again I say- slow breathing. This calms us down.
Essentially, you can think of the sympathetic nervous system as the gas, the parasympathetic nervous system as the brake. Just like when driving a car, you can’t pump the gas and brake simultaneously, so guiding yourself to take intentional, deep breaths forces your body to slow down and therefore, calm down. While this is happening, your sense of stress and anxiety is automatically suppressed.
In addition to the immediate benefits of decreasing stress and mitigating anxiety, deep breathing is also associated with more far-reaching health benefits. Some research suggests it can offer positive effects on everything from asthma to blood pressure, the immune system to digestion, with some data even implicating an impact on the expression of individual genes.
There’s nothing fancy to it. Breathe in through your nose. Make the breath in last a second longer than you think it should. Pause here as if you are arriving at the initial crest of a rollercoaster. Then, breathe out through your mouth. If you have the benefit of some solitude, let yourself verbally exhale along the way, making a swooshing sound. Allow your shoulders and fists to follow the lead of your breath, tensing as you breathe in and relaxing as you breathe out. You can even make the experience meditative by repeating a phrase from Scripture or ancient liturgy. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. I am the vine, you are the branches. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. Change emphases where appropriate to help you reflect on truth and soak it in. You could even try incorporating your body into this exercise in other ways. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes a technique he calls “palms up, palms down.” While sitting, breathe in with your palms down as you consider an attribute of God’s character and grace. Then move your hands so that your palms are facing up as you slowly breathe out. As you do, make a conscious effort to release specific worries, fears, and sins to the lordship of Christ.
Though deep breathing as a solution to stress and anxiety may sound trite, theological anthropology supports its basic suppositions and science proves its efficacy. Though distinct from one another, our bodies and souls are valued aspects of our personhood and intricately connected to one another. My hunch is that if you give this practice a shot, your experience will add another level of validation. Don’t knock it till you try it!