Why Everyone Tells You to ‘Just Breathe’: And why you should listen

Picture this: you’re getting ready for an international flight. Maybe you’re finally flying home to see family or maybe there’s an important work conference you’ve been tagged to attend. You’re not the best flyer, so you’re already feeling a little anxious about the whole thing. You’ve attempted to prepare as best you can, packing the night before and ensuring that all your essential documents are readily accessible. You call a cab to bring you to the airport, allocating plenty of time to get there, check-in, get through security and even hit the bathroom and grab a snack before needing to board.

The cab miraculously arrives on time and off you go, mentally running through all your check-lists again and again. You feel somewhat relieved in knowing that at this point, you’ve done as much preparation as you can, so now it’s just go-time. That’s when you notice your cab slowing down. You peer out the window to see a field of red brake lights and exhaust pipes. 

What the…?

You pull out your phone. Google maps showed no traffic before you left, but now, to your horror, you watch as it becomes orange, then red. Well shit.

You feel your pulse quicken and your breathing becomes more shallow. Your whole body becomes tense. You suggest to the taxi driver that maybe he could take an alternative route but the car is smackdab in the middle of traffic, and there’s no way he’s moving without all the other cars around him moving first.

Your mind is racing in 1000 different directions. What if we can’t get out of this? What if I miss my flight? What if there aren’t any other flights leaving today? Even if I make the flight, what if my baggage doesn’t? If I can’t get out the next day is my trip ruined? Should I call the airline now and see if I can shift my seat? Should I get out now and try to walk to a different street? Surely it would be faster to walk at this point. Do I cancel the trip? Agh! What do I do?! Why does this always happen to me?!

Want to know what you should do?

It’s fairly straight forward. One of the most common anxiety/stress-relieving suggestions there is.

Ready for it?

Just Breathe.

What? That’s it? That’s Bogus!! That doesn’t fix anything!

You’re right. Breathing doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It won’t magically get rid of traffic and it won’t hold your flight for you. But it will do something I consider fairly magical.

Breathing gives YOU control over which part of your nervous system you want activated. Are you about to face down a lion and need to summon all your body’s resources? Great, then start huffing and puffing. The sympathetic nervous system (aka, fight/flight) is up and running and will direct all energy towards survival.

No lion? Then it’s time to manually take over and get your nervous system to cool its jets. 

Start by focusing on taking long, slow exhales.

Exhaling in general is associated with a slight drop in heart rate, and it brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Not only will this make you feel calmer and more relaxed, but in this state your brain is taken out of problem-focused tunnel-vision mode and is able to operate more holistically. You can see opportunities instead of just limitations. You’re better able to accept whatever life throws at you, even if that means a missed flight.

Perhaps you see breath work as a bunch of woowoo fluff, and if so, I don’t begrudge you one bit. But the science is there. And for me, there is something validating in knowing that I have some control over how my body is reacting.

Try this at home (or anywhere): Start by breathing normally, whatever that may be for you. Count out your inhale, then attempt to make your exhale a little bit longer. With each breath cycle, try to slow yourself down a little bit more, even pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. 

After doing this for a couple of minutes, what changes do you notice in your body?