Don’t you hate it when you’re really nervous and anxious and a friend says, “Just take a deep breath . . .”?
It seems so trite, so dismissive, so annoying, and it can be so . . .
Although we tend to discount the merits of taking a deep breath, there are three great reasons we should remember to take one now and again, especially when we’re nervous.
1. A deep breath is scientifically proven to slow your heart rate.
We have two nervous systems in our bodies. The sympathetic nervous system turns our nerves up, preparing us for the fight-or-flight response when we get into danger.
Or what our brains think is danger. Since this ancient system no longer has saber-toothed tigers to worry about, it now perceives that things like public speaking, taking tests, and asking the boss for a raise are threatening for us.
Poof! The sympathetic nervous system is activated and cranks up our heart rates to pump more blood to our muscles, creates shallow breathing, and shoots adrenaline into our bodies to get us ready to face the danger before us.
Of course, if we’re really in danger, this is a very helpful response.
But when we’re not in peril and we’re in a situation where it would be most useful to be calm, this reaction isn’t very helpful.
The shallow breathing brings less oxygen into our bodies which means that our brains ? which use 25% of the oxygen we take in ? is getting less oxygen, too, causing us to have difficulty concentrating and focusing. And likely right when we need both of those abilities the most.
Shallow breathing also signals the body to create more red blood cells in our bloodstreams which makes our hearts have to work harder and beat faster which then makes us feel more nervous and anxious.
Luckily for us, the other nervous system in our bodies, the parasympathetic nervous system, is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. It turns down our nerves and is known as the system that helps us rest-and-digest rather than prepare to fight or flee.
One of the components of the parasympathetic nervous system is the Vagus nerve. From the root for the word vagrant, the Vagus nerve starts in our brains and wanders throughout the body, touching just about every organ within.
The great thing about the Vagus nerve is that, when stimulated, it slows down our heart rates. And, as you know, if you’re heart isn’t beating as fast, you tend to feel less anxious.
So guess how we can stimulate the Vagus nerve whenever we’d like?
By taking a deep breath.
A big inhale along with using our diaphragms is an excellent way to get the Vagus nerve active. So, when you take that deep breath, make sure you push your stomach out as you’re doing so to also engage the diaphragm.
Here’s a quick, 10-second exercise you can use just about anywhere and anytime you feel nervous or uptight:
Take a deep breath in through the nose and hold it for a count of four. Then release it through your mouth as though it was a big sigh of relief.
That’s it. You’ve now stimulated your Vagus nerve and your body has received the message that it’s time to rest-and-digest rather than fight-or-flight.
One caveat, though: Don’t take too many deep breaths in a row or you’ll hyperventilate and make your anxiety even worse!
2. Use the deep breath as a trigger to become aware that, in this moment, you’re okay.
The vast majority of our anxieties come from either fretting about the past or worrying about the future.
We’re human; it’s natural to review what we’ve done and wonder about what is to come.
However, if we do it to the extent that our minds are constantly anywhere but the present, a couple of things happen.
First, if we’re trying to manage nerves and anxiety, both thinking about past mistakes and worrying about future ones are only going to make us more nervous.
Again, fretting and worrying are human, natural mechanisms. Since we are hard-wired to maintain safety and self-preservation at all times, it makes sense that our minds flit back and forth between time frames.
After all, our brains evolved to be problem-solving machines so they are constantly trying to resolve mistakes from the past and consider strategies for the future. A little bit of this activity is okay, but a lot of it can be paralyzing and anxiety-inducing.
Secondly, if we’re spending all of our conscious time in the past or the future, we miss out on living the life that is happening right now.
Even though our minds are adept at conjuring up vivid images of both the past and the future, that’s all they are: images. It’s not real life.
Real life is what’s in front of you right now: Your computer screen, the smell of rain on pavement, your three-year-old running around in the background, and the fact that, in this moment, you’re okay.
Don’t miss out.
Each time you take a deep breath, allow it to remind you to stay in this moment for as long as possible. Sure, you’ll start going into the past or future eventually, but savor the moment while you can.
3. A deep breath just feels damn good.
Take a deep breath now.
No, really, go ahead and do it.
Doesn’t that feel great?
Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “This deep breathing thing is not going to get me out of debt, solve the problems in my relationship, or get me a new job.”
You’re right. It won’t do those things directly.
But taking a deep breath now and again will get more oxygen to your brain, allowing you to think more clearly, slow your heart rate which allows you to feel less anxious and more in control, remind you that life is happening in this moment, and allow you to feel good if only for a few seconds or so.
And, if you string enough of those moments together, who’s to say that your body and mind won’t be better able to handle some of the serious stressors in your life?
You might need to use a physical reminder to take a deep breath every so often throughout the day. Most of us, when we’re engaged in a task, allow our breathing to become very shallow, so it helps to use something to cue us to take that important big breath.
You can set an alarm on your phone or your computer to go off every twenty to thirty minutes or so to act as a reminder. Or you can set a visual cue for yourself such as taking a deep breath every time you go through a doorway or look at a clock.
Whatever the mechanism, I encourage you to make a practice of taking that big, deep breath regularly. It will calm your nerves and make you feel good. What’s better than that?
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