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Find Your Calm (Exhale)

"Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, and so changing how we breathe can change how we feel."

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. of Yale wrote this in a recent Harvard Business Review article explaining why breathing is so powerful for stress reduction. Understanding why your body responds to a change in your breathing patterns can turn your feelings of overwhelm into a calmer, more relaxed state. Additionally, learning a simple 4-7-8 breathing practice can empower you to call upon your inner yogi during moments of tension.

Science shows that certain breathing patterns correspond with different feelings. A nerve-wracking encounter (i.e., an uncomfortable client meeting or difficult conversation with your boss) can leave you feeling panicked, angry, or anxious in the moment. Behind the scenes, your body raises an alarm telling your nervous system that something has gone awry. In real-time, you can feel your palms start to sweat, your heart race, and your breath quicken. Many people look outward for a solution to their distress but are not at their cognitive best in these moments because their logic is impaired. Instead, start by looking inward. These short, quick, irregular breaths you are experiencing are associated with a stress response. Changing your breathing can literally change how you react in the moment.

Like an orchestra conductor, your breathing patterns tell your body what notes to play, and your body responds accordingly. A series of longer exhalations send a message to your heart to slow down, mirroring a natural state of calm. The slow exhalations also engage a part of your parasympathetic nervous system called the vagus nerve. Your parasympathetic system owns “rest and digestion” related activities (in opposition to the sympathetic system that is known for its “fight or flight” response). In essence, your vagus nerve tells your body to put on the brakes.

Instead of waiting for calm to “find” you, you can lead your body to a calmer state by engaging in a simple breathing pattern mimicking a restful state. A relatively simple exercise you can try is the 4-7-8 breathing technique. This short technique is often prescribed to those having trouble falling asleep. The only thing you need to know how to do is to count! Start by inhaling through your nose for four seconds. Then, hold your breath for seven counts. And finally, exhale through your mouth for eight counts. It is as simple as that! By practicing this technique regularly, you can be ready for those stressful moments.


Gotter, A. (April 20, 2018). What Is the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique? Healthline. v

Seppälä, E., Bradley, C. & Goldstein, M. (September 29, 2020). Research: Why Breathing Is So Effective at Reducing Stress.

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