Breathing: Control your Breath to Control your Nervous System

 In Blog

Life involves stressors every day and in almost every encounter we face. These stressors can be small and large, but all of them have some overall effect on the nervous system. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot tell the difference between stress of a physical nature (related to exercise or sickness) and stress created from other sources: work, relationships, family, etc.

A mindfulness practice such as meditation can have an incredibly beneficial effect on regulating this type of stress. Consider breath-control and breathing work as the “gateway drug” to meditation. In this modern age where everything is done quickly, slowing things down to meditate can be difficult at first; learning how to control your breathing is a good compromise and a positive initial investment in your personal mindfulness practice.

There is ample scientific evidence to support the fact that deep, controlled breathing can alter the state of our nervous system in a positive way. Breath control has been practiced in Eastern cultures for many generations, but it became especially popular in the West after the book The Relaxation Response was written by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970’s. Dr. Benson proposed that controlled breathing can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for emotional control and lowering of heart rate. It’s antithesis, the sympathetic nervous system, is responsible for our “fight or flight” response and can elevate heart rate, increase adrenaline, and produce other physical signs of stress within the body.

As for the specific technique used, there are many ways to take control of breathing and stimulate the parasympathetic response. Dr. Benson’s original method involved taking a deep breath through the nose, holding briefly, and exhaling through the mouth for a longer duration than the inhale. A method that I have used in my own life is the method of Box Breathing proposed by Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL commander and founder of SEALFIT. This method involves breathing deeply through the nose, holding the breath for the same count, breathing out through the nose for the same count, and holding the exhale for the same count. Since the count is the same for all four phases, one can depict the breathing pattern with a box diagram, hence the name Box Breathing. Controlling the emotional, or sympathetic, response can often be as simple as taking a deep breath through the nose, holding briefly, and exhaling fully.

An example of breath control in action was recently posted to Instagram by Commander Divine here. Although the shootings in Las Vegas were horrific and hopefully not the type of situation any of us will ever encounter, it is worth noting that breath control was used effectively in order to control one man’s emotional response to the chaos. By regulating his breathing, this individual was able to think clearly and help get himself and others to safety during that terrible situation.

In closing, by beginning your own personal practice of breath control you will more effectively be able to cope with the stressors of daily life and think clearly in situations where your body’s natural response is to shut down. By stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system you will achieve better emotional control and regulate the amount of stress your body experiences on a routine basis. Control your breathing to control your life!

Until next time.


There is a box breathing app on the iTunes app store which can be found here. I highly recommend using it if breath control is entirely new to you. There is also a slightly different breathing app called the Apnea Trainer, originally designed for free divers, which can also be an effective breath-control method. That app can be found here.


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