Combating Stress via Deep Breathing

You have the ability to combat stress via deep breathing, an action you are in complete control of. Even if the whole world is falling apart, if you can control your breathing, you can control your reaction to the situation. Read on to see how this works.

Stress as part of life

Stress has become a normal part of every day life. It’s a beautiful system meant to protect you from predators and storms. In the first world, for the most part, these stressors don’t play such a large part in our lives anymore. However, stress seems to still be rampant. It’s as if we’ve traded predators for due dates and storms for angry bosses. The stressor has changed, but the stress response is the same.

Fortunately, we have a powerful tool at our disposal to help us de-stress.

Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is a channel of nerves that run between the brain and the body (yellow channel in the picture to the left). When you’re stressed, the vagus nerve transmits signals to the brain to shut down complicated processes to help you make faster decisions. Sometimes, this means you have trouble with critical thinking and memory recall. It causes your heart rate to spike, your breathing to shallow out and your body to tremble. This is great for predators, but not for when you have to give a presentation.

You can probably imagine this quite easily.


Imagine you’re in front of your peers and were told that you would be evaluated based on how fast you completed a mental math problem. If you’d struggle in this situation, stress is the reason. It’s also the reason you may become stiff, agitated and even hostile. It’s all a means to protect you from danger.

Deep Breathing

So, how do you over come this? By the vagus nerve.

When you’re stressed, the vagus nerve sends signals to the brain to reduce the quality of your breathing.

Amazingly though, if you willfully increase the quality of your breathing, the vagus nerve sends signals to the brain (acetylcholine) to calm you down, allowing you to regain your ability to think more critically. In the mental math scenario above, if you just closed your eyes, ignored the stares and took a few deep breathes, there’d be an amazing sense of clarity that would allow you to complete the task at hand.

Emergency doctors, basketball players and military snipers all use this technique to maintain composure in the most critical of situations. Now, you can to.

Tactical Breathing

So, what’s the best way to increase the quality of your breathing? Here is a method of deep breathing employed by the military: tactical breathing.

  • Breathe in deeply with your belly up for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Breathe out for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Repeat 4 times.

This is not some woo-hoo fluffy voodoo. This is a scientifically tested method used by all members of the armed forces including US Navy SEAL snipers and the Canadian Forces. The technique activates the vagus nerve, stretch receptors of your lungs and various other sensory systems to signal to your brain to calm down, to reduce your heart rate and re-open your critical thinking pathways.

In any situation, if you’re the only one who is able to do this, you’re the only one that can change the situation.