Reducing your stress through mindful breathing

“Researchers concluded that brief vagal breathing patterns can increase HRV and improve decision-making.”
(Photo by: Spencer Selover)
“Researchers concluded that brief vagal breathing patterns can increase HRV and improve decision-making.” (Photo by: Spencer Selover)

Written by: Kiana Oliver

Editor’s note: The following article is written in partnership with Counseling Services and the Southern Accent.

Right now, your brain is most likely nagging you about the mountain of homework assignments you have yet to finish. Did you study for that test, or did you fall behind on making those Quizlet flashcards? Are you getting those 180 minutes of exercise per week? How about your worship credits? Don’t you also have a group presentation this week? It is easy to feel like a stereotypical college student who’s running on zero sleep and a lot of stress.  

During these chaotic times, I’m sure you’ve heard your friends or professors tell you to breathe. But when you feel like you’re getting crushed by your insane workload or other life problems, what does breathing really mean? Although it may seem like a cliché piece of advice, there are benefits to breathing through life. 

Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. We’re constantly breathing, whether we’re asleep or awake, which accounts for the estimated 20,000 breaths we take per day. But we’re not focusing on that kind of breathing (sorry lungs). Instead, let’s talk about deep breathing and the vagus nerve. 

The vagus nerve, also known as the pneumogastric nerve, is a pretty big deal in your autonomic nervous system. It’s responsible for internal organ functions such as digestion, heart rate, reflex actions, cardiovascular activity and, yes, breathing.

Now that you know about the vagus nerve, let’s explore how you can use it to fight against stress. There are numerous online articles, apps and YouTube videos about deep breathing. Explore what techniques and durations work best for you. 

But remember: To stimulate your all-powerful vagus nerve, the Harvard Health Blog recommends breathing through your belly and not your chest. What does that mean? To feel what belly breathing feels like, Dr. Katherine Rosa of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine recommends sitting in a chair, leaning forward and placing your elbows on your knees. Then start breathing naturally. Feel how the air fills your belly and not your chest. That’s how you stimulate your vagus nerve! 

If you’re still not convinced about the benefits of deep breathing, consider this 2019 study by Marijke Couck and others, which examined heart rate variability (HRV) and decision-making. Using 56 students, the experimental group was asked to perform two minutes of skewed vagal breathing (exhalation longer than inhalation) while the control group had to wait for two minutes. Both groups had to then perform a challenging decision-making business task. Unlike the control group, the experimental group did not report elevations in their stress levels. The researchers concluded that brief vagal breathing patterns can increase HRV and improve decision-making. 

In conclusion, the next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, remember your vagus nerve and those deep belly breaths. Pretty soon, you’ll be breathing through life. 

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