Breathing Exercises for Fight-or-Flight Moments

March 1, 2022


When you’re feeling stressed, the parts of your brain that are responsible for keeping you alive go into “high-alert.”  These parts sense stress and assume that your life is actually in danger.   If you feel stressed, your brain acts the same way, whether your home is on fire or you’re running late to an important event: it sends signals to the rest of your body to prepare for the worst-case-scenario.  What results is what’s commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response, a series of changes within our bodies that help us fight off danger or flee from it.

Lots of things happen inside your body during fight-or-flight, especially inside your chest.  You’ll feel a rush of adrenaline (energy and strength) as the heart pumps faster and your muscles tighten.  Your lungs will also expand to take in more life-giving air.  If there’s no actual danger to fight or flee, though, you’ll probably be left with a very tight chest and a head full of worries.

When in doubt, breathe out

Just as feeling stressed will tell the body that it’s time to fight or run, feeling safe (from harm) will tell the body that it’s time to relax.  One way to return to a more peaceful state is to deliberately exhale the moment we notice we’re in high-alert mode.  You might be thinking, “How does that work?”.  Well, we spend a lot of time talking about the fight-or-flight response, but did you know that we have a whole system that counterbalances it?   It’s often called the “rest-and-digest” response.  Breathing is one part of these response systems that we can directly control.  Exhalation, especially full exhalation, activates the rest-and-digest response.  We can speak to our bodies, from our bodies.  We can show our bodies we are safe by simply letting go of the air we were holding in for a fight or run that was never going to happen.

Breathing Exercises for Fight-or-Flight Moments

For an advanced technique, place one hand on the lower abdomen, just under the navel. As you breathe in, expand your lower abdomen like a balloon so that your hand moves outward. As you breathe out, flatten the lower abdomen as much as you can.

  • Long Exhales: After inhaling, exhale slower and longer than usual, to the point where you feel tightness in your stomach.  Repeat 3+ times.
  • Box Breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds.  Repeat 3+ times.

Afterward, check the body and mind: Does your body feel any more relaxed than before?  What is your stress level on a scale of 1-10?  Is it lower than before?  If stress is still high, you may want to repeat the activity or try a different breathing exercise.

If you need support to manage stress and develop practices to intervene when it increases, contact us at Steady NYC.


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