The Human Operating Manual

Breathing Downregulation

Breathing Downregulation

Why and How Would We Use These Exercises?

Downregulation is the process of reducing excitatory nervous system activity during times where a calm and collected mindset would be of greater use. This is especially useful when we feel scatterbrained or overwhelmed.

These exercises are particularly helpful for those of us that have issues with anxiety or emotional regulation. However, downregulating the nervous system can also be applicable during learning/discovery periods and whilst collaborating with others. This is because inducing a calm mind state allows for a greater field of view and also facilitates receptivity.   

The exercises provided tend to make use of the full expanse of the lungs and recognize the calming physiological effects a deep exhalation can provide.   

If you would like to learn more about altering your internal conditions via the breath, click on the Breathing Rabbit Hole link or head to the Breathing Cheat Sheet for an more exhaustive list.

As a final note before following the exercises below, always remember to breathe through your nose, unless otherwise stated, and to breathe deeply into the diaphragm.

Reducing Heightened Arousal

Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (Physiological Sigh)

When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, the heart gets bigger within the expanded chest cavity space, blood then moves slower due to the larger volume, and the sinoatrial (SA) node pays attention to the rate of flow which tells the brain that the blood pressure is slower. The brain then responds by telling the heart rate to speed up. This means, if the inhales are longer than your exhales, you’re speeding up your overall heart rate.

When you exhale, the diaphragm moves up, heart volume gets smaller, blood flows more quickly, the SA node notices and tells brain, and the parasympathetic nervous system sends a signal to slow the heart down.

The physiological sigh is what people and animals tend to do before going to sleep. Humans do it while crying in order to calm down as well. It’s a powerful way of bringing physiological arousal and stress levels down. We do this about every 5 minutes, way more than previously expected. The alveoli’s fluid lining (surfactant) makes it easier to stretch the alveoli during a breath. This is because water has surface tension, making sides stick, meaning alveoli tend to collapse if not opened up fully, frequently. Taking a physiological sigh can pop them back open by creating greater pressure in the lungs.

The reason that stress triggers a physiological sigh is due to the hypothalamus, a hormone and peptide releasing area of the brain, which releases peptides during stress states (bombesin peptides), stimulating the Pre-Bötzinger complex, and triggering breathing skeletal muscles and also a modulatory effect on a number of different areas of the brain that lead to greater survival during stress induced states. 

The Physiological Sigh:

  • In order to execute a physiological sigh, you take a double inhale followed by a long exhale.
  • The double inhale re-inflates the alveoli so that the long exhale is more effective at ridding the body of CO2.
  • Do it 2-3 times during times of stress to reduce heightened arousal.

Therapeutic (Anxiety/Depression):

Yogic breathing (Pranayama Basics)

These exercises help to develop the respiratory and circulatory systems, and strengthen the diaphragm. They also cleanse the nose and sinuses and are therefore useful for preventing colds and other illnesses. Pranayama also stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, so one must be careful if they have high blood pressure, weak heart, epilepsy, or reduced liver function. 

Phase 1:

  • Sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, and relax the shoulders. Maintaining a straight back.
  • Place one hand over the navel and slowly breathe into the belly. You should feel it expand with each breath in, deflate on the way out. Practice this for a few breaths.
  • Move your hand up a few inches, to cover the bottom of the rib cage. Focus the breath into this location, expand ribs with each inhale and retract with exhale. Practice 3-5 times.
  • Move hand below collarbone. Bring the inhalation up into the collarbone region.

Phase 2:

  • Connect all these motions into one breath, inhaling into the stomach, the lower rib cage, and then the chest.
  • Exhale in the opposite direction.
  • Continue for a dozen rounds.
Box Breathing

Navy SEALs use box breathing to stay calm and focused in tense situations. Box breathing is useful when breathing needs to be regulated, rather than excessively calmed.  

  • Inhale to a count of 4 seconds.
  • Hold the breath for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 2 seconds.
  • Repeat.

Longer exhalations elicit a stronger parasympathetic nervous system response. Good for sleep.

  • Inhale to a count of 4
  • Hold for 4 seconds.
  • Exhale for 6 seconds.
  • Hold for 2 seconds.
  • Repeat for six rounds.


4-7-8 Breathing

Similar to box breathing, Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing encourages deep relaxation:

  • Take a breath in.
  • Exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound (through the nose if you would like to avoid irritating your partner).
  • Close the mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of 4 seconds.
  • Hold the inhalation for 7 seconds.
  • Exhale completely through the mouth (with a whoosh), to the count of 8 seconds.
  • Repeat for at least 4 rounds.


Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

Improves lung function and lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic stress. Use before meetings, events, or sleep. Left nostril breathing for calming (parasympathetic nervous system) and right for excitement (sympathetic nervous system). Adjust the exercise to purely left nostril breathing if you would like to focus on creativity, by providing more blood flow to the right hemisphere of the brain. 

  • (Optional) Hand positioning: Place thumb of your right hand over your right nostril and the ring finger of that same hand on the left nostril. The forefinger and middle finger should rest between the eyebrows.
  • Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril very slowly.
  • At the top of the breath, pause briefly, holding both nostrils closed, then lift the thumb to exhale through the right nostril.
  • At the natural conclusion of the exhale, hold both nostrils closed for a moment, then inhale through the right nostril.
  • Continue alternating breaths through the nostrils for 5-10 cycles.
JayPT +