Marisa Cohen

Just Breathe

You’re having a heated exchange with your partner during which your heart is racing, your hands feel sweaty, and your thoughts start to spiral. You want to get your point across, but your physiological arousal level is so high that the conversation with your partner has now become unproductive and tense. You have been told to take a break by your therapist, self-help articles, and well-intentioned friends, enabling you to cool off. However, what seems to happen more often than not is that you pace around the room and further amp yourself up about the argument, leading to an even greater amount of stress. While there are many different approaches you can take, allowing your body to return to a calmer state, one
of the best is to breathe.
While this may seem overly simplistic, there is a specific method that can leave you feeling calm and collected, enabling you to rejoin the conversation in a more relaxed and focused manner.
The Science
Our autonomic nervous system acts unconsciously to regulate body functions. It is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is what accounts for the racing heart, rapid breath, and quickened pace when the fight or flight response kicks in during
a stressful or fear-provoking situation. If you remain at this level of increased autonomic arousal for a prolonged period of time, your resources will get depleted leaving you feeling tired and overwhelmed. The parasympathetic nervous system is what kicks in to bring our arousal or alertness back down.
Now, when a difficult situation (i.e., an argument with your partner) occurs, both the stressor (the situation) and your response (the heightened level of arousal/alertness) must be resolved before being able to complete that stress cycle. While there are many different ways to complete that cycle, one of the most effective is through breathing.
Breath Activity
One technique that many people use is the box method, or square breathing, in which you take slow and even breaths to the count of four. You would:
• Breathe in for four
• Hold for four
• Breathe out for four
• Hold for four
• Repeat
Even more effective is when you are able to focus and slow down your out breath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the body. Here’s how to approach it:
• Breath in through the nose for a count of four
• Hold for four
• Breathe out through the mouth for a count of six
• Repeat
Try this for four complete cycles so that you can return to a calmer stare. This will enable you to have a more relaxed and productive conversation with your partner.

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