How your breathing changes in a state of calm

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’ [3]) 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) [10]. Changes like this during meditation result in decreases in both oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide production [2].

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 [9].

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 [1] 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.

Creating 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) [4], 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 [5].

Even sighing (which is a type of deep breathing) is powerful and useful. Sighs are methods by which the body provides instant stress relief [8], 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


1. Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 10(6), 410–422.

2. Beary JF, Benson H. A simple psychophysiologic technique which elicits the hypometabolic changes of the relaxation response. Psychosom Med. 1974 Mar-Apr;36(2):115-20.

3. Lehrer, P.M., Vaschillo, E., Vaschillo, B. (2000). Resonant Frequency Biofeedback Training to Increase Cardiac Variability: Rationale and Manual for Training. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Sept 2000, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 177-191.

4. Lin IM, Tai LY, Fan SY. (2013). Breathing at a rate of 5.5 breaths per minute with equal inhalation-to-exhalation ratio increases heart rate variability. Int J Psychophysiol. 2014 Mar;91(3):206-11.

5. Moraveji, N., Hagiwara, T. (2012). BreathTray: Augmenting Respiration Self-Regulation without Cognitive Deficit. Extended abstracts of ACM CHI 2012. Austin, TX.

6. Park E, Oh H, Kim T. (2013). The effects of relaxation breathing on procedural pain and anxiety during burn care. Burns. Sep;39(6):1101-6.

7. Schaffer, S., Yucha, C. B. (2004). Relaxation & pain management: The relaxation response can play a role in managing chronic and acute pain. American Journal of Nursing, 104(8), 75-82.

8. Vlemincx, E., Taelman, J., Van Diest, I., Van den Bergh, O. (2010). Take a deep breath: the relief effect of spontaneous and instructed sighs. Physiol Behav. 2010 Aug 4;101(1):67-73.

9. White, JM. (1999). Effects of relaxing music on cardiac autonomic balance and anxiety after acute myocardial infarction. Am J Crit Care July 1, 1999. vol. 8 no. 4 220-230.

10. Wolkove, N., Kreisman, H., Darragh, D., Cohen, C., Frank, H. (1984). Effect of transcendental meditation on breathing and respiratory control. Journal of Applied Physiology Published 1 March 1984 Vol. 56 no. 3, 607-612.

How breath can help you stay calm - from

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Anxiety, Body & Mind


I suspect the state of calmness varies for people and breathing rhythm does not reflect the whole of it. I constantly receive the message that I am tense. I however do not feel it.

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