New York - Take a long, slow breath. Really, it'll help.
The idea that breathing exercises can somehow calm you down is an ancient one—yoga isn't a recent development, you know. But few people understand exactly how breathing can relieve stress on a physiological level and can even be used to increase workplace productivity.
The answer lies in the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the automatic functions that keep our body ticking. While most autonomic functions—such things as heart rate and digestion—are out of our conscious control, breathing is unique in that we can take charge, if desired. Not only that, but invoking different breathing patterns can have a sort of cascade effect, shifting our entire autonomic nervous system between a state of rest and relaxation (scientists call this zone the “parasympathetic” state) and the ready-to-rumble state of fight-or-flight (this is called the “sympathetic” state).
In layman's terms, different breathing patterns can serve as a quick and often easy way to manipulate your emotional and physiological state in ways that allow you to be calmer, less stressed, and more productive.
Our lungs are filled with receptors that tell our brains whether we are inhaling or exhaling, explained Dr. Patricia Gerbarg, an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at New York Medical College and co-author of The Healing Power of the Breath. As we inhale, we activate the sympathetic state (the fight-or-flight system). As we exhale, we activate the parasympathetic state (the calm and collected system). This is why yoga-style breathing exercises often involve long exhalations.