We’ve seen it in a meme, on wall décor, and in cards. We hear it from friends and family members when we are going through difficulties. While the intention is good, sometimes it can come off invalidating. When dealing with trauma, Depression, Anxiety, Chronic Pain, Grief, Etc., being told to breathe can sound superficial. The truth is, learning how to breathe can greatly impact our ability to cope through these difficult times. There are two ways in which we breath; thoracically (Chest) and diaphragmatically (Diaphragm).  

When we are distressed, our sympathetic nervous system is active. This is known as our fight/flight response. This was created back when there was the threat of a saber tooth tiger or mammoth and needed extra umph in our muscles to fight for our lives or run like crazy.

This works well for threatening situations, hard physical labor, or exercise. Our brains release cortisol and adrenaline to “pump up” our major muscle groups. Blood is constricted to the brain and extremities to keep oxygen rich blood pulled into these major muscle groups for fighting or running. Our heart rate increases, and we breathe from our chest to get copious quick bursts of oxygen to our blood stream.

This system does not do well for when we are emotionally distressed, or there is no physical need for the added adrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged production of these chemicals along with the decreased full body blood circulation can have devastating effects on both mental and physical health.

Imagine trying to drive your vehicle down the highway at top speed, but in first gear. Your RPMs are maxing out, your engine and transmission are unnecessarily working harder than they need to. Eventually, something will give out and you are left stranded on the side of the road.

A way to help our minds and bodies when distressed is changing from where we breathe. Shifting our breath from our chest to our diaphragm is like flipping a switch. Breathing from our diaphragm has significant health benefits:

  • Increases blood flow throughout the body:
    • Eliminating free radicals
    • Relaxing muscle tissue
    • Reducing inflammation.
    • Reducing pain
    • Increasing mental clarity and focus
  • Helps to lower blood pressure, therefore reducing risk of heart disease
  • Helps lower blood sugar, therefore reducing risk of diabetes.
  • Facilitates weight loss by balancing stress hormones with anabolic hormones
  • Reduces Adrenaline and Cortisol which can lower heartrate and have a calming effect.
  • Releases serotonin into the body, which can help you feel good, and reduce cravings for junk food.
  • Improves sleep quality
  • Increases secretion of growth hormones and slows the aging process.


While it isn’t a magic cure, a simple change in how we breathe can reduce pain, and discomfort. It can help to reduce overwhelming thoughts and bring some peace.

A slow and controlled 4- count inhale, hold for 2 at the top, then slow controlled 4-count exhale through pursed lips.

Taking 3-5 breaths while in distress can reduce symptoms instantly. Taking 3-5 minutes a day can enhance your mind and body’s ability to cope with distress, overall.

Just like learning to play a sport, an instrument, or exercise, practice is key. Scheduling a regular time during the day (like the first five minutes upon waking or last 5 minutes before bed) can make it easier to remember and do.

If you are distress, anxious, depressed, or hurting and needing relief, start simply; just breathe.


Jason dye social worker

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