One day, when Marjani Aladin was in college, she noticed she was holding her breath.
It was something she did under stress. Now, her stomach was in chronic pain again.
Aladin exhaled the roughly six liters of air stored in her lungs and found immediate relief. But breathing has been a recurring issue (and solution) throughout her life.
“I would get up every morning and throw up,” Aladin tells Inverse. “The doctors didn’t know what was going on. The biggest thing that helped was managing my stress with breathing.”
School is stressful, no doubt, but paying close attention to breathing is scientifically proven to improve mental health, especially stress response. Breathing techniques have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
Shannon Sims, a core faculty member at the Department of Mind-Body Medicine at Saybrook University in Oakland, says breathing can’t eliminate stress. “That’s impossible,” she tells Inverse. But it can still help.
“Where the magic happens is in our ability to use simple techniques to manage stress in a productive way that boosts our health instead of damaging it,” Sims says.
To do so, you have to first understand what happens to the body when it’s stressed and how breathing can reverse that response.
The ancient brain
The limbic system first appeared in mammals about 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period. It’s the part of the brain that handles the fear response, thanks to an almond-shaped mass of gray matter called the amygdala. This part of the brain tells the rest of the body that it’s in danger, triggering either the fight or flight response.
“We have evolved so much, but this part of the brain really hasn’t changed at all,” says Sims, noting that modern human brains react to school — or any other form of stress — in the same way ancient humans processed getting chased by a tiger.
During fight or flight, the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Adrenaline courses through the bloodstream. Heart rate and breathing quicken and blood pressure rises. The hypothalamus prompts the pituitary gland to pump out hormones that trigger the release of cortisol. The body pulls blood out of the extremities and into the core muscles and organs it needs to either fight off a threat or flee from it. Growth and digestion are both halted since neither functions are critical in the moment.
“It’s natural and even sometimes beneficial to have a stress response,” Sims says. “But we want to find balance. When we are constantly stressed, our bodies aren’t doing what they are supposed to do. It’s why we see a lot of digestive issues that are strongly linked to stress.”
The antidote is stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, and breathing is one of the best ways to do it.
Overriding fight or flight
The parasympathetic nervous system — nicknamed “rest and digest” — brings relaxation to the body. It’s responsible for mood control, digestion, immune response, and heart rate, and the main component of the system is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves: the vagus nerve.
Vagus is Latin for wandering. The nerve originates in the brainstem, travels down the neck, and wanders throughout the abdominal cavity, where it touches every organ in the region. Finally, it connects to the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle beneath the lungs that balloons and contracts as we breathe. Expanding the diaphragm stimulates the vagus nerve, sending a signal to the brain that it’s time to relax, slow the heart rate, stop the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and resume growth and digestion.
“We are chronic shallow breathers, especially when stressed,” Sims says. “Shallow breathing stimulates the fight or flight response.”
One full breath can be enough to stop that biological process. That’s because while we typically only breathe into the top quadrant of our lungs, the bottom quadrant is where “all that oxygenation is happening.” Using the bottom of your lungs, located just above the belly button, helps oxygenate your blood and your brain.
Taking full, long breaths also cuts down on the variability in time between heartbeats.
“Heart rate variability is a marker of resilience,” Sims says. “If we can improve our heart rate variability, we can improve our reaction to stressful things in our life.”
Shaping the breath
The breath is the only system in the body that can be both automatic and voluntary. We don’t have to remember to breathe, but we can consciously change the speed and depth. Even so, the seemingly simple act of breathing may take practice.
“The lungs are a muscle. You have to work them out to strengthen them and keep them in shape,” Sims says. “If you aren’t used to breathing fully, it can feel uncomfortable at first because your diaphragm gets tight, and that’s an unfamiliar sensation.”
Sims highlights the fact that there are many different scientifically backed breathing techniques, and people should find the one that works best for them at the moment. As a rule of thumb, she encourages people to focus on breathing slowly and directing air low in the lungs, or belly breathing.
“Just one breath is so magnificent.”
“I don’t emphasize deep breathing because sometimes, for some people, taking consecutive really deep breaths can actually trigger anxiety and be shocking to our body,” she says.
According to Sims, the sweet spot is inhaling for four to six seconds and matching your exhale. However, some research suggests a short inhale and longer exhale better stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and is, therefore, more effective in calming the stress response.
“Breathwork can be done while sitting, standing, or lying down,” says Sims. “If sitting or standing, it can be helpful to imagine a string attached to the top of the head that is gently being pulled upwards.” The visualization can help straighten the spine, stack the hips, shoulders, and head, and open up room in the ribcage for the lungs to expand.
Aladin, who started practicing breathing techniques in college, also utilizes visualization. She imagines her breaths as a color, which helps her concentrate on controlling her inhales and exhales.
3 breathing techniques to reduce stress
1. Box breathing is a four-step de-stressing technique that Navy SEALs use to calm their stress response. To practice it:
- Inhale for four seconds
- Hold that breath for another four seconds
- Exhale for four seconds
- Hold for four seconds
If it’s easier for you to start with a shorter time, the practice will still be effective.
2. The 4-7-8 breath relaxation exercise uses a similar approach, using the theory that a longer exhale produces a more potent psychophysiological calming effect.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing focuses on moving the breath into the belly or lower lungs. To start, sit or stand with your back straight and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Inhale through the nose for six seconds while keeping your chest as still as possible and expanding the breath into your lower lungs. Then, exhale for six seconds.
These are just a few of the many breathing techniques that can help you reduce stress. So keep experimenting until you find one that works for you.
New insight into an old fundamental
Humans have used breathwork to manage their mindset for thousands of years. It’s a staple in ancient practices like yoga and tai chi, and scientists are still untangling exactly how breathing in different ways creates a ripple effect in the body.
According to Sims, breathing has always been a research topic, but it’s recently gained more mainstream traction as a tool for managing stress. While past research honed in on what breathing does to the autonomic nervous system, Sims expects forthcoming research to target neurophysiology.
In one small study of eight people, published in 2018 in the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers used fMRI scans to reveal that voluntary or controlled breathing engages a different part of the brain (the frontotemporal-insular cortices) than automatic breathing (the cingulate cortex).
“Breathing is so incredible because of this psychophysiological relationship,” says Sims. “Just one breath is so magnificent.”
So the next time you’re feeling stressed about school (or anything else), take a deep breath and relax. It really does make a difference.
Optimize is Inverse’s wellness-focused back-to-school guide, providing students of all ages with the science-backed tips they need to prepare their minds and bodies for returning to school.