Close connection between breathing, stress and difficult emotions

You’re stuck in traffic and are about to be delayed to an important meeting. The kitchen is a mess, the kids are hungry and unruly, the phone is ringing and the meatballs you intended to cook are gone. You receive a tiring text message or e-mail. Your partner is angry and is screaming at you. What happens to your breathing when you read these lines? Does it get stressed? When you experience stress, your breathing also becomes stressed. One of the most effective ways to take control of internal stress is by taking control of your breathing

Impaired breathing

increases fear and worry

What happens when we get scared or worried? “Oh, help! A tiger!” “Oh, a tiring text message.” We gasp for breath, right! This reaction is simply a way to wake up the body and make us alert and ready to face the emerging situation.

The feelings of fear we experience at the dentist, in the hospital when we are getting a shot or when we see a spider often make us gasp for breath, get tense and our breathing gets “stuck.” The phrase “Now the danger is over, we can breathe out” is an example of this.

Or if we are going make a speech at a wedding and are a little worried, then we’re likely to get anxious and breathe faster and higher up in the chest. Unpleasant feelings often have their center in the stomach, which reaffirms the expression “butterflies in your stomach.”

As we move our breathing up into the chest, it’s like we’re running away from our fears. This reduces the movement of the diaphragm, our main breathing muscle, which gives our feelings of discomfort the opportunity to grow bigger.

And it’s not just shallow breathing that results from unprocessed feelings. We also take the elevator up into our head and experience increased mental stress. A vicious circle is created and if it isn’t broken, the worsened breathing, mental stress, and unprocessed feelings will become worse, which can lead to anxiety, panic, and phobia.

Maintain good breathing -

one of the biggest challenges of our time

One of the greatest challenges of our time is being able to handle the huge amount of stimuli we’re exposed to each day AND at the same time maintain a breathing pattern that is rhythmic and relaxed.

Experiencing war and accidents, in reality, or through news, newspapers, and movies gives rise to thoughts and feelings that change your breathing. You may sit still, but your breathing is ready for fight or flight.

Over time, it may be enough to hear the news intro or to see the front page of the newspaper to trigger stressed breathing, thus initiating a domino effect in which your thoughts, feelings and physical body are adversely affected. This, in turn, causes further deterioration in breathing and a vicious circle is established.

Low levels of carbon dioxide

is the problem

Some good examples of breathing’s great influence on our feelings are panic attacks and fear of flying. At times like those it’s common for you to breathe into a bag in order to re-breathe some previously exhaled air. But why?

Exhaled air contains 100 times more carbon dioxide than inhaled air, and when we re-breathe the exhaled air, the carbon dioxide levels in our body are raised. The person with panic attacks or fear of flying begins to feel calmer. So during times of panic and fear, lowered carbon dioxide levels are the basic problem.

Ask a flight attendant the next time you fly, and they can confirm that breathing into a bag almost always works.

Carbon dioxide pressure -

our main stress indicator

Carbon dioxide pressure may not be as well known as blood pressure, but is far more important. Carbon dioxide pressure varies with each breath and reveals how you feel – mentally, emotionally and physically, which compared to the blood pressure provides a much better snapshot of your health.

An optimal carbon dioxide pressure is between 40 and 45 mmHg (millimeters of mercury, the same unit as blood pressure is measured in), and it’s absolutely crucial for your well-being. Because there is such a close link between a deteriorated breathing (which lowers carbon dioxide pressure) and stress, it’s undoubtedly your most important stress indicator. The table below shows the relationship between carbon dioxide, breathing, and stress.

Carbon dioxide pressureBreathingState of health
40-45 mmHgOptimum breathingHealth, energy, and harmony
35-39 mmHgOver breathingStressed
30-34 mmHgHyperventilationVery stressed
25-29 mmHgForeceful hyperventilationExtremely stressed

Stress and deteriorated breathing

affects the brain negatively

When we experience stress, our deeper instincts take over because it’s not convenient to try to make conscious choices like thinking about whether we should run left or right when a tiger attacks us.

A part of the stress response, therefore, means that activity decreases in both the cognitive parts of the brain, the center of our conscious choices, and in our limbic system, the brain’s emotional center. At the same time, the activity increases in the oldest part of our brain, the reptile brain, which manages instincts and survival.

The picture to the left shows brain activity at normal breathing and the image to the right after one minute of hyperventilation. The more colorful —red, yellow, green— the more activity. After one minute of hyperventilation, the activity in the brain have decreases drastically due to oxygen deficiency induced by hyperventilation.

A lot of the stress we experience in our daily lives is mental and emotional and isn’t accompanied by any physical activity. Therefore, it’s very common for many of us to walk around with a low-grade form of hyperventilation, i.e., we breathe in a way that doesn’t reflect our body’s needs.

The difference won’t be as dramatic as shown in the picture above, but when over breathing is repeated hour after hour, day after day, it will eventually have a significant negative impact on your brain’s ability to work.

Lower levels of carbon dioxide

decreases the blood flow to the brain

Already in the 1940s the researchers Seymour Kety and Carl Schmidt made a groundbreaking discovery, namely that there is a direct connection between the carbon dioxide pressure and the blood flow to the brain. The reason for the study was to find out how pilots during the second world war could make better decisions while under stress.

When the carbon dioxide pressure was increased, the blood flow to the brain increased, while a decrease led to a reduction in the blood flow. The researchers found that when the carbon dioxide pressure dropped below 30 mmHg, there was a markedly increased risk of mental fatigue and also unconsciousness.

In a study from 1964, M. Reivich demonstrated how blood flow to the brain decreases by 2% for each 1 mmHg reduction in carbon dioxide pressure.

The mechanism is used to facilitate brain surgery. By adjusting the respirator to cause the patient to hyperventilate, the blood flow to the brain is reduced. It decreases the brain volume, constricts blood vessels and reduces hemorrhaging in the brain. These factors facilitate the operation.

Another technique is to allow the patient to hyperventilate at the end of an operation. Therefore, you don’t have to give as much anesthetic and the patient can wake up sooner after surgery.

Adrenaline increased by 360%

at carbon dioxide deficiency

In one study, twelve healthy medical students hyperventilated for 20 minutes. On one occasion during hyperventilation, they breathed normal air, which reduced the carbon dioxide pressure to an average of 25 mmHg. On the other occasion, the subjects breathed air containing five percent carbon dioxide, i.e., 100 times more than normal, which generally kept the carbon dioxide pressure unchanged.

The stress hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine increased by 360 and 151 percent respectively, as they breathed normal air. In hyperventilation with carbon dioxide-enriched air, the levels of both adrenaline and norepinephrine were largely unchanged. Thus, low carbon dioxide levels lead to a strong hormonal stress response.

All participants also had enlarged pupils that didn’t respond to light, called mydriasis, and convulsive muscle contraction. The latter is something I can confirm as I have hyperventilated on several occasions, and the muscles in my legs and hands shook uncontrollably for several minutes after I quit hyperventilating, as if I had Parkinson’s.

Carbon dioxide is our body's

most important stress relieving hormone

In your body’s cells, carbon dioxide is constantly produced, at a rate of about one liter for every four minutes when you’re at rest. As you breathe, you breathe out the carbon dioxide that has been built up in the body. The more active you are, the more carbon dioxide is produced. That’s why you breathe more if you’re running, compared to sitting on the couch and relaxing.

The two major causes of lower levels of carbon dioxide are a) over breathing / hyperventilation, when you exhale too much carbon dioxide and b) inactivity as it reduces carbon dioxide production. The main reason to why we feel good when breathing more slowly or doing different types of physical activity, is that the body’s carbon dioxide levels increase.

When you experience mental or emotional stress, but the stress is not accompanied by physical activity or low, slow and rhythmic breathing, the stress might build up in your body and sooner or later cause serious damage.

This article is based on the book The Power of Your Breath.



If so then you will probably like our newsletter BreathingNEWS. It contains a lot of tips and inspiration to help you get more energy, reduce stress, improve sleep and more.

BreathingNEWS is free and published six to eight times per year.

Stress – What is it Really?
Calming down a stressed brain
LACK OF ENERGY – The Foundation for Poor Health
How do you breathe? Take our unique 2-minute breathing test
How stressed out are you? Take our unique 3-minute stress test
Improve Your Breathing Now - 28-day Breathing Retraining

Share this post

About the author

Anders Olsson

Facebook Twitter

Anders Olsson is a lecturer, teacher and founder of the Conscious Breathing concept and the author of The Power of Your Breath. After living most of his life with a ”hurricane of thoughts” bouncing back and forth in is head, Anders was fortunate enough to come across tools that have helped him relax and find his inner calm. The most powerful of these tools has undoubtedly been to improve his breathing habits, which made Anders decide to become the worlds most prominent expert in breathing. This is almost 10 years ago and since then he has helped tens of thousands of people to a better health and improved quality of life. His vision is "Together we change the world, one breath at a time." Read more about Anders here >>