The Power of the Breath in Calming the Nervous System

Young adult with red hair and beard, wearing light blue buttondown shirt, lies on grass with eyes closedPeople seek counseling for any number of reasons, but something every person I have ever seen had in common is wanting to feel better quickly. I can hardly blame them. When I am not feeling well or things aren’t going right, I want things fixed in as little time as possible.

It is part of our human nature to seek solutions. When we are in pain of any kind, the brain immediately starts scanning to find a way out of the discomfort. The reality is that, for most of the people I work with in therapy, it takes time to work through and resolve the issues at the root of their pain. A longer-than-expected timeline for relief can be discouraging for the person seeking help. To give a person some degree of relief in the present moment, it is necessary to implement stabilization and coping skills so they can begin improving their quality of life and functioning.

There are so many options when we starting talking about coping and stabilization skills. Go to the self-help section of any bookstore and you will see several selections for coping with life. I have a bookshelf and a file drawer full of countless options, and it can be overwhelming to decide where to start. Each skill has its benefits and strengths, and it’s handy to have a variety of tools for handling life’s stressors. That said, I have a favorite: the simple, yet powerful, breath.

This is where I start with most people: just breathing, paying attention to the breath, and noticing the depth and rate. It sounds so easy, right? As straightforward as it may seem, the breath has serious influence when it comes to calming the nervous system.

Let’s talk about science for a moment. Bessel van der Kolk (2012) does an excellent job of explaining how the nervous system operates in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. In the book, van der Kolk discusses Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which is all about the role of the vagus nerve in arousal and social engagement.

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It comes down to this: We have two branches of the nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system, which can be considered “the accelerator in the nervous system” (van der Kolk, 2012), controls levels of arousal and the fight-or-flight response so we can effectively respond to threats. When this part of the nervous system is activated, the heart rate goes up, breathing becomes shallow and fast, and blood rushes to the extremities in preparation for fight or flight following the cues being sent from the sympathetic nervous system.

By connecting to the breath, you are able to be in the moment, becoming more mindful with what is happening now as opposed to engaging in the mental chaos that so often distracts us from what is actually happening around us.

Of course, this reaction is not activated only in response to actual threats to safety. It also happens in response to life’s stressors, including any core issues or traumas we haven’t yet worked through. Therefore, we end up experiencing all of the physical and mental consequences when are in a state of chronic sympathetic nervous system arousal (van der Kolk, 2012).

The other branch of the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is “the brake of the nervous system” (van der Kolk, 2012). The vagus nerve controls this part of the nervous system and can be broken down further to the dorsal vagal complex and the ventral vagal complex. The dorsal vagal complex is designed to drop your body into a freeze-and-flop response when the sympathetic nervous response is unsuccessful in achieving fight or flight. This is the state of shutdown or hypoarousal (van der Kolk, 2012).

Similarly, the ventral vagal complex also slows the body down, but it differs from the dorsal vagal complex in that its main function is not to respond in an extreme way to a threat or high levels of stress. Rather, it activates a relaxation response and helps the body to grow, heal, and digest. It also helps us to seek out and connect with others. When the ventral vagal complex is activated, we can feel a wide range of emotions but the nervous system is not overwhelmed and thus does not have to enter the shutdown response.

Here is where the breath comes in: When you breathe out slowly and mindfully, the ventral vagal complex is activated and your body is able to relax. More blood is directed to the parts of your brain that are involved in problem solving, and you are able to enter the state of social engagement. By connecting to the breath, you are able to be in the moment, becoming more mindful with what is happening now as opposed to engaging in the mental chaos that so often distracts us from what is actually happening around us. By specifically paying attention to exhaling, you are simultaneously calming the body and the mind (van der Kolk, 2012).

Harnessing the power of the breath is something we all can benefit from at any time. Regardless of whether a person is in therapy, we all need to calm the nervous system from time to time. Being mindful of the breath can help a person to deal with everyday stresses that we all inevitably encounter. Simply paying attention to breathing can help us to focus better and, therefore, make us more productive and effective in our lives.


van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Corrie

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    Oh yeah deep cleansing breaths always get me back to a more focused and calm state.

  • Mark C

    December 1st, 2016 at 7:27 PM

    I’d previously read about deep breathing and that it calmed the parasympathetic nervous system, but with no explanation how. I’m one of those people who needs to know causation. Thanks – bookmarked.

  • seth

    December 2nd, 2016 at 9:02 AM

    It very much centers you and like mentioned, can be quite soothing

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