Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

A Single Deep Breath Is the Quickest Way to Relieve Stress

It’s a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve — and induce a state of calm

Elemental
Published in
4 min readFeb 20, 2020

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TThe way a person breathes is inextricably linked to the way a person feels. This is a central tenet of several forms of Eastern medicine as well as everything from yoga and meditation to tai chi and karate. Each of these disciplines emphasizes the primacy of careful and controlled breathing for the health and function of the body.

While Western medicine has long recognized shallow, rapid, or otherwise disordered breathing as a symptom of illness, breathing was not traditionally viewed as a modifiable factor in an ailment’s progression or treatment. But that’s changing. The last two decades have witnessed a surge in breathing-related interventions for pain- and anxiety-related disorders, as well as for diseases of the gut, heart, and brain. The more doctors explore breathing as a form of illness prevention and therapy, the more they turn up evidence of its importance.

One 2012 study in the journal Pain Medicine found that five-minute periods of deep breathing led to statistically significant improvements in pain detection and tolerance among healthy adults. And a 2005 study found that two minutes of slow, controlled breathing led to a 6% drop in blood pressure scores among people with hypertension.

The research on respiration also extends to the brain. One 2015 study in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging found that six months of breathing training, but not exercise, led to improvements in mental flexibility and other measures of cognitive functioning among seniors. Research has also found that slow, deep breathing improves a person’s memory retention.

The authors of all of these studies highlight the breath’s calming, stress-lowering powers as the likeliest explanation for its beneficial effects. And this makes sense: The bulk of the research on breathing exercises has focused on their ability to combat anxiety and stress.

“Breathing is the only physiological function that is under our voluntary control, and slowing the breath has profound and immediate physiological effects,” says Irina Strigo, an associate professor of…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.