In this post we discuss what happens to your breathing when you’re calm. Over the coming weeks, we’ll post similar articles on tense and focus.
Adults breathe at 12-20 cycles per minute (cpm), fluctuating depending on a number of factors including current state of mind. As a result, the rhythms and patterns of our respiration help us assess how our days are really going.
We use the word calm to refer to a state where the one feels physically relaxed while mentally aware. This can happen often during a nice conversation, relaxing music, meal, reading a book, or being in nature.
How calm is reflected in the body
When the body is calm, a number of physiological changes occur (‘rest and digest’ compared to ‘fight or flight’): lower blood pressure, perspiration, heart rate, and respiration rate to name a few.
The decrease in respiration rate depends on how calm you are feeling. For example, if you normally breathe at 18 cycles per minute (about 3.3 seconds per breath or spb), feeling calm may drop your rate down to 14 cpm. Feeling really relaxed may drop it to 10 cpm (6 spb) and with deep meditation ~6 cpm (so-called ‘resonant frequency’ ) or even lower.
In addition to a slower rate, other changes occur. The inhalation duration can shrink, thereby emphasizing the parasympathetic component of the respiratory cycle (which is when heart rate decreases) . Changes like this during meditation result in decreases in both oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide production .
With calm, the brain and body can devote time and energy to processes like digestion, self-healing, and regeneration. The effects can be sustained even after relaxing stimuli (like relaxing music) are removed .
Being calm isn’t just good for your body – it’s good for your mind. The brain, when it’s not feeling threatened and stressed, can engage in complex cognitive planning, problem-solving, and decision-making  using the prefrontal cortex (PFC). So if you really want to perform to your best, ask yourself how much of your day you spend in a state of calm.
Respiration is unique because it is the only autonomic function that we have direct, immediate, conscious control over. This means it acts as the tangible ‘way in’ to affect our nervous system and our state of mind. By slowing your respiration and ensuring inhale and exhale are regulated, you bring your mind into a state of calm, reducing pain [6, 7], creating cognitive clarity, and even increasing heart rate variability (HRV) , a measure of vagal tone (parasympathetic activity). What’s powerful is that you can change your respiratory behavior so quickly and easily that it doesn’t distract you from cognitive performance .
Even sighing (which is a type of deep breathing) is powerful and useful. Sighs are methods by which the body provides instant stress relief , essentially a ‘reset button’ for your body. This is quite possibly the simplest action you can take for your own health and wellbeing – you don’t even have to get up!
By being aware and in control of our breathing, we give ourselves a tool to live life with balance, take care of our brains and nervous systems, and to live with our values in mind. In this moment and the next.
Figure from LiveMedical.net
Update July 2015: We have just released free email courses on being more mindful and productive, sleeping better, and reducing anxiety. Check them out at www.spire.io/courses.
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