Breathing and the relaxation response

Uncategorized Feb 11, 2015

Breathing exercises play a crucial role in relaxing the body and mind. They actually create a relaxation response and help the body go into self-repair mode; this will decrease pain and tension.

What is the relaxation response?

To explain the relaxation response, I need to explain a little bit about the nervous system.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system, also known as the involuntary nervous system, is responsible for regulating all automatically occurring processes in the body, such as breathing, blood pressure, digestion, heart beat, bladder function and narrowing or widening of the blood vessels. There are two parts to it: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.


The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response and it is set into motion when we experience stress. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure, slows down digestion, and increases alertness and tension in the muscles. It is the opposite of the relaxation response.


The parasympathetic nervous system does the exact opposite. It brings the heart rate and blood pressure back to normal, improves circulation, enhances digestion, and calms us down. It conserves energy and is the opposite of the stress response.

The relaxation response is set in motion by the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing exercises are one way of setting the parasympathetic nervous system in motion. Breathing and the relaxation response is the easiest and most important self-care strategy available.

What are the benefits of breathing exercises?

  • Deep breathing exercises are a natural, effective self-care strategy we can use to balance the autonomic nervous system. They help to relieve pain, stress and anxiety and promote overall relaxation and self-repair.
  • Deep breathing has a positive effect on the brain: it increases alpha brain waves,  which reduces anxiety and stress. The alpha brain waves also stimulate the release of the body's built-in natural pain relievers.
  • Deep breathing increases the oxygen levels in our bloodstream which will increase oxygenation in all our cells. Increasing oxygen levels in the brain will actually make you smarter and more creative!
  • Deep breathing releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin also helps you to relax, and it reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels. This hormone is our body's built-in anti-anxiety drug.


Basic breathing exercise

  • You can practice breathing exercises anytime any place. It is easiest to start in a quiet place, laying down, eyes closed. Place your hands on your abdomen and just pay attention to your breath. Try to breathe all the way down into your abdomen. The contraction and relaxation of your diaphragm will make your abdomen rise and fall with each breath.
  • When you breathe in, try to breathe in slowly through the nose, until the lungs are almost full. When you exhale, try to do it slowly and until almost all air is expelled. Each breath should be through the nose; deep, complete, long and slow.
  • Notice your abdomen rise and fall with each breath; if you are not sure, just place one hand on your upper chest and keep one on your abdomen. Try to breathe down to your bottom hand, not your upper hand.
  • Stay present with your breath. It helps to count your exhalations. Start counting up to five, then back down to one. Repeat this as long as you can stay present, but aim for at least five minutes. With practice, you can increase your time.
  • You can practice this breathing exercise throughout your day whenever you have a moment, or when you start feeling tense or stressed. I strongly recommend practicing it daily at home in a quiet environment, because it is easier and practice makes perfect. When you are in a stressful situation, it is much harder to be present with your breathing. By practicing it daily, however, you will create a very valuable tool to reduce stress which you can use whenever you need it!
  • Practicing breathing in warm water will enhance some of the positive benefits, such as releasing tension and increasing oxygenation. The pressure of the water on the abdomen will slightly increase the effort of an inhalation, and decrease the effort of an exhalation. This will strengthen the diaphragm. In the water you can practice breathing floating vertical, horizontal or sitting, leaning against the wall.

I have created a video of how to use this effective self-care strategy in the water.



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