Deep breathing isn’t just “take a deep breath”

Deep breathing Man sighing in stress

Part of managing stress in our crazy, modern world is learning how to manage what stress does in our own bodies.

What I hear from many clients is just how out of control they feel when things start spinning. How do you make good decisions when you feel overwhelmed?

It’s hard to come up with solutions and ideas when things are going whack-a-do around you.

Maybe this sounds familiar.

  • Driving to work this morning felt very much like running a qualifying lap at Daytona
  • The kids just won’t stop…, you know, they just won’t stop
  • Your boss just completely changed how you do your work without asking how the changes might affect you, and
  • That creditor who calls every day has called you twice already today.

You know you have to keep moving through the day. How do you gain back enough control to just keep your head straight?

The best tool you can have in your stress toolkit is deep breathing

I think we all instinctively know that taking a minute to breathe can give a little time to refocus. And we have to breathe anyway, right? So that seems easy enough.

But deep breathing is more than just inhaling and exhaling with purpose. And it’s not just breathing deeper, as crazy as that sounds.

Deep breathing is a specific technique that allows you to use your breath to actually change how your body physically responds to stress.

This is a powerful skill used by soldiers, law enforcement and other high-risk/high pressure professionals.

With some practice, you can make deep breathing your “thing that always works.”

And here’s the best kicker: Deep breathing can buy you the control and time you need so you can respond to your stress in more helpful ways.

How does it work?

Deep breathing reverses the fight or flight stress response

The “fight or flight response” is supposed to be your body’s way of helping you survive something, like running from a hungry tiger or getting out of the way of a moving car.

Here are a few lovely things you can expect when you are in “fight or flight” mode:

  • Your heart starts beating faster
  • Your blood pressure goes up
  • Your pupils dilate
  • Your muscles get shaky
  • Your stomach starts to cramp
  • You suddenly start sweating.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack while sitting at your desk at work, these symptoms may also sound too familiar.

There’s no real predator at your back, but you feel completely overwhelmed, powerless and amped up all at the same time.

Thanks, Body, this is a very clever process to quickly remove me from danger. But I’m currently sitting at my desk not running from anything. I’m just trying to finish my weekly report before I go to lunch, if that’s okay.

Notice, too, that your breathing has gotten quicker and more shallow. Instead of slow, deep, calming breaths, you’re now taking quick-little-breaths from your chest.

Focus on breathing from your diaphragm

That’s a nifty little muscular organ that sits right at the base of your chest. It inflates to help you pull air into your lungs, then flattens when you exhale.

The diaphragm is the Rodney Dangerfield of bodily organs. It doesn’t get much respect but it does have a real part to play.

The trick to deep breathing is to focus on filling your “I don’t get no respect” diaphragm — your belly — with air, instead of your chest.

Why is this important?

Filling your belly with air stimulates your vagus nerve.

That’s a long nerve that runs from your brain stem down into your abdominal area.

It’s one of the most important nerves in your body because it regulates processes in just about all your major organs.

Never heard of it?

The vagus nerve is kind of the introvert of the human body. You don’t hear from it much until you need it, and when you do, you find yourself drinking from a firehose of practical solutions and actionable information (a shout out to awesome introverts everywhere).

Who knew that expertise was sitting there all this time?

Well, your vagus nerve has been sitting there all this time — cleverly, right behind your diaphragm.

The vagus nerve is responsible for … wait for it …
  • Slowing your heart rate,
  • Controlling sweating,
  • Regulating blood pressure, and
  • Keeping your digestive system relaxed and working well.

Soooo……taking intentional, deep breaths from your diaphragm presses on your vagus nerve, which sets about the task of slowing you the heck down.


There are some great tools out there to help you learn how to breathe from your diaphragm. You can let the Google box do the work for you on that.

But my go-to app to do the work is called Breathe2Relax (for iPhone and Android). It’s a free stress management tool developed for combat veterans.

The app offers a tutorial to get you started with the technique. Then it takes you through a cycle of breathing that guides you through the inhale and exhale. You can repeat it as many times as you need to. If you’re using an Apple Watch, it captures your heart rate too.

I’ve used this app in my car, in a bathroom stall, in my bed, at my desk and one time in a McDonald’s drive through.

There are no breaths to count or memorize. Just focus on filling your belly with air and let the app do the counting.

Some days it’s the only thing that keeps me balanced.

Take 5 Breathing

If you don’t like apps or don’t have a device handy, you can use a technique called Take 5 Breathing. This one works great with the kiddos, too.

  1. Lay your right hand on a flat surface, fingers slightly fanned out.
  2. Then, starting with the bottom of your thumb, with the index finger on your other hand, trace up, inhaling deeply into your belly.
  3. As you trace back down the other side of your thumb, exhale slowly.
  4. Continue up the next finger (the index finger if you’re keeping score at home), inhaling, and so on, back down, until you reach the last finger on your hand.
  5. Rinse and repeat until you feel more relaxed and calm.

Deep breathing isn’t just a one-and-done approach

Learning how to breathe deeply gives you the power to instantly change how your body physically feels during a stressful moment.  But in order for it to work so powerfully for you, you have to make deep breathing a daily practice.

I would say it’s even a discipline.

Just like exercise or meditating, you have to train yourself to learn the technique and use it until it becomes second nature to you.

And the best time to do that is when you’re not feeling particularly stressed. Maybe start your day with it, or when you’re spending a few minutes in front of the TV.

Making deep breathing a regular part of your day will help your nervous system stay conditioned to help you relax more quickly when you need it.

With some disciplined practice, you can pull this one out on a dime and give yourself a better chance to respond to what’s happening around you.

Check out my new Alexa Skill – Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

You’re busy at work and at home, and you take care of everyone else. You’re allowed to have a few minutes in each day to set your focus, regroup and feel a little more in control.

Join me every day as I bring you simple and practical tips you can use right now to gain a little more control over your life.

Visit my Amazon page for more information.

Amazon Alexa skill - Mental Health Moment with Lori Miller

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