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Stressed or Anxious? Why (and How) to Control Your Breathing

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Take a few slow breaths… it always makes you feel better, especially when you’re stressed. But why is this?

At a very basic level, controlling your mood is as easy as retaking conscious control over your respiration rate. Read on to learn...

  1. Why the quickened breathing of anxiety, stress or anger leads to unpleasant feelings.
  2. A simple exercise that can help calm anxiety breathing.

Why Anxious Breathing Makes Us Feel Bad

Our bodies produce carbon dioxide as a waste product when metabolizing oxygen. In a relaxed state, oxygen inhalation balances out carbon dioxide exhalation and carbon dioxide levels in the blood stay stable. As a result – we feel OK.

When we exercise, our muscles demand extra oxygen and produce extra carbon dioxide, so during exercise we breathe more rapidly - to deliver the extra needed oxygen and to expel the extra carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood stay in balance, and as a result, we feel OK.


When we get scared, stressed or anxious, respiration quickens and we take in extra oxygen and exhale extra carbon dioxide, however, since we don't use extra muscle energy, our muscles don’t produce extra carbon dioxide to match with this quicken depletion rate. When we're stressed, we push out more carbon dioxide than we create and levels in the bloodstream drop. With depleted carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, we can feel lightheaded, sweaty and tingly – we don’t feel OK!1

So anxious breathing can cause unbalanced carbon dioxide/oxygen levels in the bloodstream, and this can lead to symptoms that actually worsen our stress or anxiety!

Fortunately, we can retake control of your mood as easily as retaking control of your breathing.

Our Nervous System is From Another Age

Our body has 2 essential regulatory systems (functioning largely below the level of consciousness):

(1) the parasympathetic nervous system and (2) the sympathetic nervous system

  • The parasympathetic nervous system is the normal regulator for autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate.
  • However, in moments of crisis, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and wrests control of these and other automatic processes. Unfortunately, our sympathetic nervous system can’t differentiate between everyday stress or anxiety and true crisis stress or fear. As a result, for example, as we feel anxious before a social situation – our body gets ready for a fight to the death or a full out sprint to safety!

This is obviously not ideal. Anxiety causes a sympathetic physiological response (pounding heart, sweating, etc.) and this makes your anxiety feel worse than it was to begin with.

Fortunately, we can trick our sympathetic nervous system into retreat by slowing our breathing. By the logic of our body – if the breathing slows then the crisis must be over, and there’s no longer any need to stay ready for the worst.

It doesn’t get any simpler than this!

Breathe Slowly

Here is a simple breathing exercise for you:

  1. Breathe through your nose only*
  2. Inhale for a slow count of 4
  3. Exhale for a slow count of 4
  4. Repeat until calm

* Breathing through the nose only creates resistance to air flow, which helps slow your respiration rate and contributes to relaxation

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Page last updated 29/05/2015

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