The SOS button for your mind and body

The SOS button for your mind and body


We often think of emotion as something that we passively "experience":

For example, you are listening to relaxing music on a chill Sunday morning. You notice that you are breathing deeply and slowly, and you feel calm.

*Your parasympathetic nervous system is in control. It transmits "rest and digest" signals via the vagus nerve to our internal organs.

Suddenly, you remember an important public speaking event is coming up tomorrow, and your breathing becomes faster and shallower.

*Your sympathetic nerves now take over, sending "fight or flight" signals throughout the body. Evolutionarily, our body increases breathing rate under stressful conditions to maximize oxygen intake to prepare the body for action (such as running away from threats) . Many times, these involuntary body responses associated with negative emotions leave us feeling overwhelmed and powerless [1].

The good news is that: The reverse is also true! We can actively change the state of the body to "trick" our brain out of negative emotions [1]. The key to change lies in manipulating a process that we often take for granted: breathing.

Expert says that taking short, shallow breaths is powerful enough to induce a state of anxiety in someone [3]. This is because rapid, shallow breathing increases activity in the amygdala (the brain's fear center), triggering emotions such as fear and anxiety.

Conversely, breathing exercises with prolonged exhalation allow the diaphragm movement to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. A major component of the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve, signals the heart rate to be slowed, the blood pressure to be lowered, and muscles to be relaxed. Then, sensory neurons pick up these body signals and transmit them into brain regions responsible for emotional experience [2].

The amygdala is the brain's fear control center, and its activity can be controlled by breathing patterns. Long, deep breathing can activated the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (important for emotion regulation) and reduce activity in the amygdala (hence reducing anxiety) [1].

Therefore, the simple act of breathing can act powerfully as a "SOS button" to alter our physiological state and tap into our emotional realms. This is why Today Well Spent included "breathing" into our daily "self-care routine" section in our Attn Journal handbook!



There are many types of breathing exercises. The following quiz can help you find the most suitable one for you!

1) Which one of the following aspects you would like to change the most via breathing exercises:

▢ Fall asleep faster = E
▢ Improve lung function = C
▢ Quickly destress before stressful events = B, D
▢ Improve long-term mind and body health = A, C

2) What makes you feel hesitant to try breathing exercises?

▢ Don't have a private space
     (I don't want to be noticed when I want to practice in public!) = D, C
▢ Too complicated = B, D
▢ Don't have time = B
▢ Can't hold my breath for that long! = A, B, C

3) When feeling stressed, which of the scenarios best describes you?

▢ Worsened performance = B, D
▢ Tend to think a lot and sometimes losing control over racing thoughts = A, D
▢ Lowered sleep quality/always feeling tired = E
▢ Cannot concentrate = A

The letter that appeared most frequently in your answers would be the most suitable for you!

A. Alternate nostril breathing

Study shows that alternate nostril breathing for only 5 minutes can significantly enhance parasympathetic tone, bringing the breather to a calmer state [4]. In the long-term, alternate nostril breathing practices shift the equilibrium towards a more parasympathetic dominant manner, resulting in a change in mood, and improved cardiovascular and respiratory health [4].

Bring your right hand to your nose and fold the index and middle fingers as such: 

Cover the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger, release the thumb and exhale through the right nostril
- Inhale through the right nostril, close, exhale through the left nostril
- Repeat


B. Physiological Sighs

A breathing pattern often happens when people (even animals!) are scared or sobbing. When we feel stressed, the air sacs in our lungs collapse. Physiological signs help re-inflate these sacs, maximizing oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output, therefore instantly bringing stress level back to baseline [4].

It's done with double inhalation followed by an exhale.


C. Belly Breathing

If you've seen the belly rising and falling of a newborn, you will notice that belly breathing is the breathing pattern we are born with. Compared to only using your chest to breathe, belly breathing can maximize the O2 and CO2 exchange, decrease heart rate and stabilize blood pressure. Long-term practice of belly breathing can strengthen your diaphragm, allowing you to breathe more efficiently [6]

- Place one hand on your belly. Breath in, let your belly expand to push on your hand (WITHOUT expanding the chest because we want to use the abdominal muscles to pull down the diaphragm ACTIVELY. If chest muscles are engaged, the diaphragm is not activated as much, and the purpose is defeated.)

- Breath out, feel your belly going in.


D. Box breathing

Before stressful events, this is a quick way to return your breathing to a normal rhythm [6]. People with high-stress professions such as police officers, professional athletes, and soldiers commonly utilize box breathing when entering "fight or flight" mode [6]. Box breathing is hard to be noticed, so you can practice anywhere (on the bus, at your desk, even during a meeting).

Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4s, exhale for 4s, hold for 4s
(Count: In 2,3,4 --> Hold 2,3,4 --> Out 2,3,4 --> Hold 2,3,4, repeat)


E. 4-7-8

Regular 478 breathing exercises are shown to help people fall asleep faster. In the process of counting, you are forced to concentrate on breathing instead of chasing after worrying thoughts. It is an "oxygen boost" for your organs that can put you into a state of deep relaxation. You may notice that meditation often uses similar concepts such as guided imagery (i.e. recall a pleasant memory) and focused breathing to bring attention away from distracting thoughts [7].

Inhale for 4s, hold for 7s, exhale for 8s.


I hope today's article provided you with another tool to gain more control over your mind and body! When in doubt, just breathe :)



  1. André, C. (2019, January 15). Proper Breathing Brings Better Health. Scientific American.

  2. Komori T. (2018). The relaxation effect of prolonged expiratory breathing. Mental illness, 10(1), 7669.

  3. Princing, M. K. (2018, June 4). This Is Why Deep Breathing Makes You Feel so Chill. Right as Rain by UW Medicine.

  4. Sinha, A. N., Deepak, D., & Gusain, V. S. (2013). Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research : JCDR, 7(5), 821–823.

  5. Jewell, T. (2018, September 25). Diaphragmatic Breathing and Its Benefits. Healthline.

  6. Stinson, A. (2018, June 1). Box breathing: How to do it, benefits, and tips. Medical News Today.

  7. Gotter, A. (2018, April 20). 4-7-8 Breathing: How It Works, How to Do It, and More. Healthline.

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