How does your breathing change when you feel tense?

This post is third in a series that explains how changes in your state of mind influence your breathing, which underlies how Spire’s algorithms work. The first post was about Calm, the second was about Focus, and this one is about Tension.

Stress. It’s got such a bad rep! But where would we be without it? Bored and unaccomplished, to say the least.

We love a good adrenaline rush and succeeding under pressure (video games, anyone?) yet we hate chronic anxiousness and worry and certainly don’t like to feel like we don’t have control over our lives. We want to have the drive without the stress. We want it all, don’t we?!

The good news is that managing – and harnessing – stress is a skill we can practice and improve at. This skill is called ‘resilience’ and it’s a very hot topic these days. An important part of improving your resilience is being more aware of when you’re feeling stress: what’s caused it and what your reaction is.

Ask yourself: How aware are you? How sensitive is your stress barometer? Can you nip stress in the bud before it starts to make your body and mind rigid? Can you stay flexible when you feel threatened? Can you see challenges as just that – challenges to overcome? Like most people, you probably get distracted by your work, relationships, or general worry. And you are probably open to improving this by using whatever helps. Well, it turns out that awareness of your own breathing can really help.

Much is known about the therapeutic effects of ‘taking a deep breath’ – but there is another powerful use of breathing when it comes to stress: using it as an ‘stress barometer’ that won’t lie to you.

Scientific studies have shown that changes in respiration patterns alone can predict social, cognitive, and physical stress [2]. Because stress isn’t a binary state but rather a fluctuating process across emotional valence and intensity, the specific changes in respiration pattern can vary. But there are common indicators. For example, you may not realize it, but your breathing rate may increase under stress or anxiety [3]. Check your abdominal muscles – are they unnecessarily tight, disallowing your breath from flowing into your lower lungs? Or is multi-tasking under anxiousness making your breathing more volatile and erratic, a sign of stress rather than focus [4]?

Of course, stress happens. But when it happens so often that restful, diaphragmatic breathing becomes a rarity, it can theoretically lead to chronic ‘overbreathing’, expending unnecessarily high levels of carbon dioxide and thereby triggering the amygdala’s carbon dioxide sensor [5]. The triggering of the amygdala (in the old, reptilian part of the brain) can subconsciously prompt one to take even deeper breaths, exacerbating the problem while the appropriate response is actually to slow respiration down and increase the duration of the exhalation.

Though a great deal of research on respiration has been done, we are still learning more of the science behind this very fundamental behavior of life. Why? Because quantitatively sensing respiration has been very difficult until the advent of trackers like Spire. The explosion of these trackers and other sensors will provide a great deal of insight into respiration.

Spire currently tracks ‘anxious’ form of stress (increased respiratory rate at rest) and is in the process of adding the ‘frustrated’ form of stress “characterized as rapid, low tidal-volume predominantly thoracic ventilation” [1]. This latter type of stress is currently being added to the Spire Tense algorithm.

At Spire, we use the word ‘Tense’ rather than ‘Stress’ for 2 reasons:

  1. ‘Stress’ has a lot of negative baggage that comes along with it, although stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
  2. ‘Tense’ feels a bit more neutral than ‘Stress’ – i.e., you can acknowledge you’re feeling tense and be ok with it (rather than denying or judging it).

In summary, stress causes changes in your mind and body and this is reflected in your breathing pattern. By being more aware of how your breathing changes throughout the day, you can learn what stresses you, what engages you, when normal stress turns into worry and anxiety, and what you can do about it. The patterns of inhale, pause, and exhale are not random and instead, are quite meaningful. Greater fluency with your own breath can deliver health and work benefits you can feel today.



  1. Grossman, P. (1983). Respiration, Stress, and Cardiovascular Function. Psychophysiology. Vol. 20, No. 3.
  2. Plarre, K., Raij, A., Hossain, M., Ali, A., Nakajima, M., al’Absi, M., Ertin, E., Kamarck, T., Kumar, S., Scott, M., Siewiorek, D., Smailagic, A., & Wittmers, L. (2011). Continuous Inference of Psychological Stress from Sensory Measurements Collected in the Natural Environment. IPSN 2011, Chicago, IL.
  3. Van diest, I., Bradley, M. M., Guerra, P. Van den Bergh, O. & Lang, P. J.(2009). Fear conditioned respiration and its association with cardiac reactivity. Biological Psychology, 80, 212-217.
  4. Vlemincx, E., van Diest, I., van den Bergh, O. (2012). A sigh following sustained attention and mental stress: Effects on respiratory variability. Physiology & Behavior, 107, Issue 1, pp. 1–6.
  5. Ziemann AE, Allen JE, Dahdaleh NS, Drebot II, Coryell MW, Wunsch AM, Lynch CM, Faraci FM, Howard MA, Welsh MJ, Wemmie JA. (2009). The amygdala is a chemosensor that detects carbon dioxide and acidosis to elicit fear behavior. Cell. Nov 25;139(5):1012-21.

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Spire is dedicated to helping you live a happier, healthier lifestyle with an easy-to-use device for mindful breathing techniques. Learn more about the benefits of breath-tracking at


Anxiety, Body & Mind


Hi Lilli! Spire doesn’t track sleep at the moment so it would be best to not wear it as you sleep. Thanks for reading and wearing!

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