Why is parasympathetic breathing so calming and how do I do it?

Do you find your mind racing when you feel overwhelmed or stressed out? A simple exhale-focused breathing exercise can help you soothe your nervous system, calm your body, and still your mind.

Why is this type of breathing so calming?

In times of stress, your sympathetic nervous system triggers your fight-or-flight response. This speeds up your heart rate as well as your breathing and pumps stress hormones like cortisol through your bloodstream.

When you breathe out for a bit longer than you breathe in, known as parasympathetic breathing, the vagus nerve that runs from your neck down through the diaphragm tells your brain to turn down the sympathetic nervous system and to turn up the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system controls your rest, relax, and digest response, which means while it’s dominant, your breathing slows, your blood pressure lowers, and your heart rate drops.

Put it into practice:
  1. Sit still and tall somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose.
  2. Inhale for a count of 2. Pause at the top of your inhale for a count of 1.
  3. Exhale gently, for a count of 4. Pause at the bottom of your exhale for a count of 1.
  4. Keep your breathing even and smooth. If the 2-4 count feels too short, try increasing the breath lengths to 4 in and 6 out, 6 in and 8 out, and so on. (If longer breaths create any anxiety, don’t push yourself. The most important thing is that the exhale is longer than the inhale.)
  5. Set a timer and breathe this way for at least 5 minutes to see a difference in your mood.

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