Take a deep breath - Using breathing and stretching to calm the mind and body

"Take a deep breath..."

This is some advice I am sure you have heard countless times if you’re angry, upset, or agitated, or if someone thinks you are making a bad decision. Literally or metaphorically, someone is telling you to pause, calm down, and take time to reflect, hoping this will change your mind or how you feel.

The advice may not always be welcome, but it is correct: a certain kind of breathing really can make you feel calmer and more relaxed, both emotionally and physically. It can help you feel safer if you feel threatened, and give you time to think about what to do next.

Trying deep breathing now will help to explain what I mean.

Breathing technique

First of all, take a moment to notice how you are feeling - what emotions do you feel? Are you worried, angry, or upset about anything? Are you feeling down? Notice also how your body feels – do you feel stiff, sore, or tight anywhere?

Whether you are sitting or standing, take a deep, slow breath in through your nose. If you can, place a hand on your stomach and feel it expand as you breathe in and your breath fills your diaphragm. Now hold your breath just for a moment, before taking a long, slow breath out through your mouth. The out-breath should last just a bit longer than the in-breath. And, when you’re ready, repeat.

Try this for a couple of minutes (or a bit longer if it's helpful), and then notice what has happened with your feelings and whether anything has changed in your body. I imagine you are now feeling a bit calmer and more relaxed than at the start, so how does this happen?

How do breathing techniques work?

It’s all to do with two areas of the nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). If we feel anxious or worried, it's often because we sense or believe something bad or scary is about to happen. We may not really know what it is, but we still have this nagging sense that something is about to go wrong.

This might be because the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system, has detected what it deems to be a threat or risk to our safety, and is getting the body ready to respond.

When the amygdala senses threat, it sends out signals to alert the body. Messages in the form of stress hormones are sent to the heart to get it to beat faster, to the lungs to take in and distribute more oxygen, and to the muscles to get them ready for action. These signals run along the SNS - the part of the nervous system responsible for getting the body ready for exertion. If you were warming up to run a 100 metres race, you would also use the SNS to get heart, lungs, and muscles prepared. If you take a sharp breath in, your heart rate increases.

The PNS, by contrast, is responsible for calming the brain and body down, and it is engaged by long, slow, deep breathing, just as you have been doing. Slowing your breathing down will slow down your heart rate, and the heart is connected via the vagal nerve with the non-verbal area of the brain which houses the alarm system, the amygdala.

This is of course nothing new. Yoga practitioners have known about the calming effects of deep, slow breathing for thousands of years. They have also understood how relaxing stretching your muscles can be, and have combined the two activities with a meditative approach to produce a gentle but incredibly powerful tool for developing mind and body. Yoga is now recommended as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), especially by clinicians who understand the impact trauma has on the body.

Breathing and stretching

Slow deep breathing actually enhances stretching. Again, yoga and Pilates practitioners and teachers have known this for a very long time too; when you are stretching after a workout or run, you must have noticed that if you move the limb concerned to the point of mild tension, take a deep, slow breath in through the nose, hold it for an instant, and then a longer breath out through the mouth, moving the limb on the out-breath, you can actually move the limb and its muscles and tendons into a deeper stretch. This is called “developmental stretching”, and if the body feels relaxed, the mind will feel relaxed too.

If someone’s amygdala is triggered and believes they are in danger, and they begin to feel scared or terrified, telling them to “calm down” won’t have much effect because the words will be heard by the frontal cortex of the brain, not by the amygdala. The usual lines of communication between the frontal cortex and the amygdala will be closing down as the latter triggers the fight or flight mechanism. Long, slow breathing is much more effective at such moments, engaging the PNS which reaches all the way up through the spine to the lower or limbic brain, which houses the amygdala.

Breathing and trauma

If you have been traumatised by an earlier traumatic incident, such as sexual assault, rape, or another violent attack, the amygdala can be triggered if something happens to remind it of the original trauma, triggering the same fight, flight or freeze mechanism as at the time, and you could feel as if the incident is happening again. Again, breathing and stretching can really help to calm you and help your brain and body understand that the incident is not happening again and that you are safe.

Breathing really can help you calm down when your trauma or anxiety is triggered, and it’s a simple technique that you can use anywhere. There may come a point, though, where you need to talk to a therapist about the causes, so you can gain lasting relief.

If your trauma is buried really deeply, EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) may be more helpful than simply talking about what happened in a more conventional talking therapy approach. EMDR uses the stimulation of left to right eye movement to reach these deeper, non-verbal parts of the brain and experience held in the body to promote processing and healing.

Finally, a word about stretching - if you exercise regularly and have already been shown how to stretch safely and effectively by a fitness instructor (a personal trainer, yoga or Pilates teacher), then please go ahead, following what you have been shown. If you are less certain of what to do, or perhaps haven’t exercised for a while, please take advice from a professional first to avoid any injuries.

Breathing, though, is something you do all the time, even when you are asleep. You have done it continuously since the moment you were born, mostly without even realising it, so if you feel you need to, please, take a deep breath.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London WC1V & E3
Written by Andrew Keefe, MA FPC UKCP: Psychotherapist EMDR Therapist Personal Trainer
London WC1V & E3

Andrew Keefe is a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, EMDR Therapist and Fitness Instructor,in private practice in East London and Holborn. He has worked as a therapist at The Refugee Council, Freedom from Torture and WPF Therapy. He has special interests in survivors of sexual abuse, violence, terrorism, birth trauma and mental health and exercise.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals