You may have noticed that anytime you feel anxious or stressed, the standard advice you receive to help you calm your mind and body always has to do with controlled breathing exercises.
This isn’t just advice that people and doctors are tossing out at you without cause.
In fact, there is a scientific reason that breathing exercises work to calm down the mind and the body.
The primary purpose of breathing is the absorption of oxygen and to expel carbon dioxide. When stressed, a person tends to take small, shallow breaths, using their shoulders instead of their diaphragm to get air in and out of their lungs.
This breathing style causes disruption to the balance of gasses in the body. This can lead to shallow over-breathing or hyperventilation.
When your body begins to feel the effects of being stressed out, your adrenal glands release something called cortisol. Cortisol is more commonly known as the stress hormone, and when your cortisol levels are elevated, there are many negative side effects.
Some of the effects of having increased levels of cortisol include lower immune function, disruptions in both the memory and the learning functions, an increase in blood pressure and an increased risk for depression and other mental illnesses, also weight gain.
Of course, all of these things don’t just happen because you experience occasional stress, but rather if you are dealing with stress on a regular basis and not doing anything to help reduce the levels of stress your body feels.
Another side effect of the increase in cortisol levels is that your body shifts into the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for mediating the hormonal stress response better known as the fight or flight response.
This means that when the sympathetic nervous system takes over, it has the following effects on your organs:
- Eyes: Dilates the pupils
- Heart: Increases the rate and force of the heart contractions
- Lungs: Dilates the bronchioles and circulates adrenaline
- Sweat Glands: Activates secretion of sweat
What Happens When You Do Breathing Exercises?
When you do breathing exercises, you are breathing in a slow, gentle, and even way. When you are breathing this way, the effects of the sympathetic nervous system are minimized as the parasympathetic nervous takes over.
The parasympathetic nervous system works alongside the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are often considered opposites of one another. However, this relationship is not antagonistic. Instead, the relationship is complementary.
Often referred to like the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy as it reduces the levels of cortisol in the body.
The reduction in cortisol leads to a slowing of the heart rate, which in turn also lowers blood pressure and increases feelings of relaxation.
Some of the other benefits to controlled breathing include:
- A reduction in the lactic acid buildup in muscle tissues.
- Levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.
- Improved function of the immune system.
- Feelings of calm and well-being are increased.
When we are focused on our breathing, our mind automatically becomes calmer. Since the rest of our body is being told to relax, our mind is no longer focused on all of the things that are going on in our body.
Another advantage to focused breathing is that our mind needs to focus on the act of taking slow, even, and measured breaths. This shift is focus allows our mind to clear. A clear mind allows us to approach problems with a clear mind without having stress cloud our judgment.
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