How Deep Breathing Affects the Nervous System

by | Apr 6, 2022

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Most of us have never regretted pausing for a moment to take a deep breath. Breathing deeply relaxes your body and mind, helping you to feel calmer and more in control. 

You tend to feel better after a deep breath because your breathing affects your nervous system. The nervous system is like your body’s computer programming. It controls how you think, feel, and move your body. It also controls organs you don’t have to think about, like your beating heart. 

Deep breathing has been found to help you feel more relaxed, think more clearly, and lift your mood.[*] Let’s break down how deep breathing leads to changes in the nervous system and why it’s so important. 

 

Deep Breathing 101

Deep breathing refers to focusing your attention on taking slow, deep breaths. It’s common to spend much of your day using only shallow breathing. Shallow breaths tend to be rapid and only use a small percentage of your lung capacity. You know you are breathing shallowly when only your chest moves with each breath. 

When you breathe deeply, you use a muscle under your lungs known as the diaphragm.[*] During a deep breath, the diaphragm contracts and moves down to make room for the lungs to fill. When you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up. You know you are breathing deeply when both your chest and belly expand and contract with your breathing. 

 

Deep Breathing and Your Nervous System

Deep breathing promotes relaxation in the body because it helps to regulate the nervous system.[*] Each time you take a deep breath, your diaphragm contracts, and this contraction stimulates a part of the nervous system known as the vagus nerve.[*

The vagus nerve is a system of nerves that run from the brain down to the large intestine. These nerves control involuntary actions in the body. Involuntary actions refer to bodily functions that happen without thinking about them, such as your heart pumping blood to the body or your digestive tract digesting your last meal.[*]

The vagus nerve is an important part of the nervous system because it helps to regulate the sympathetic nervous system. This system is known for its “fight or flight” response. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it causes an increased heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. It can also lead to feelings of irritability and anxiety.[*] You likely felt your sympathetic nervous system activated the last time you had to do something stressful, such as giving an important presentation at work. 

The vagus nerve downregulates this “fight or flight” response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system tends to slow down our bodies, bringing down the heart rate and breathing rate. It directs more oxygen back to your brain, helping you to think more clearly and feel less stressed.[*] This is why you usually feel better after taking a few deep breaths. 

 

Breathing and HRV

Another way that deep breathing impacts the nervous system is by improving our HRV (heart rate variability). HRV measures the time in between your heartbeats. When the time between beats fluctuates or changes slightly, those fluctuations are known as HRV. 

It is normal for our heart rates to change throughout the day based on what we’re doing. Your heart rate needs to increase when you go from sitting at your desk to jogging around the block. A high HRV indicates that your body can adapt to changes as needed. 

A 2014 study found that people with insomnia were able to increase their HRV with regular deep breathing exercises. After breathing deeply for 20 minutes each night, the study participants also reported that they fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer.[*]

 

Deep Breathing and Mood

Perhaps one of the most noticeable benefits of deep breathing is an improved mood. Breathing deeply affects our emotions and leads to decreased feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.[*]

Each time you take a deep breath, a complex set of changes takes place in your brain. A 2016 study found that deep breathing reduces emotional responses in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for processing any stimuli that feel threatening or scary.[*] This means that deep breathing can help you to think more clearly without your emotions taking over. 

Most of us have experienced the regret of acting or speaking in the heat of the moment without thinking it through. Deep breathing allows our brains a chance to calm down and think through our next actions. 

 

How Breathing Exercises Work

Starting a deep breathing exercise program does not have to be complicated or overwhelming. No one needs one more task on their to-do list. All you need is a quiet place to rest and a few minutes to focus on your breath. 

It may be helpful to lie down and rest one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen. As you start to breathe in, notice if your belly rises. Try to fill your lungs completely. Then breathe out and notice your chest and belly relaxing like a deflating balloon. 

When you’re first implementing a deep breathing routine, it can be helpful to have some extra support. If you would like a little guidance during your deep breathing sessions, consider using the Somnox 2 sleep robot. It breathes with you to help you breathe more deeply and evenly.

 

Should You Try Deep Breathing?

Deep breathing is a healthy choice for just about everyone. Most of us could use more activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Modern life can often feel busy and chaotic. 

Taking a few moments each day to counteract life’s stressors with a deep breath may quickly become one of your favorite daily rituals. 

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