Fight, Flight or Breathe: An Easy and Effective Stress Reduction Method

It is Friday afternoon. You are hungry, tired, and driving home in rush hour traffic. The driver in the lane next to you is talking on a cell phone and oblivious to the slow down ahead. The driver swerves, almost hitting you. Your adrenaline rises, breath becomes shallow, and shoulders are immediately tense. By the time you get home, you are on edge for two hours until your body calms down.

Fight or Flight Response

If you have stress in your life, you are familiar with the effects of your body’s fight or flight response. In reaction to stress, your body’s sympathetic nervous system stimulates muscle tension, increased blood pressure, and rapid, shallow breathing. Evolutionarily, this system is preparing you to either fight or flee a predator. After a stress such as this, the parasympathetic nervous system would take over, allowing the body to heal, repair, and rest.

You may have the fight or flight response after a stressful phone call, or a busy day at work, or a conflict with a co-worker. Many people don’t allow themselves to take time to relax and rest after a stressful, even though, causing the fight or flight response to be triggered chronically for most people. Hunter-gatherers and many tribal cultures spend large portions of their days resting, which is essential for the body to remain healthy. How can you integrate relaxation and healing into modern life?

A Modern Day Method for Relaxation

Resonant breathing, also called Cardiac Coherence, is a simple method of syncing your inhalations and exhalations to a steady rhythm. Inhale for 5-6 seconds and exhale for 5-6 seconds. Studies have shown this method powerfully stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to shift into heal, repair, and rest mode. This mode greatly benefits health. HeartMath creates biofeedback devices for syncing your breath. You can try the technique simply using the ticking of a clock to help you count the breaths. There are also free phone apps available, like Kardia, which give you visual and audio clues for breathing in rhythm.  

For most people, around 5.5 breaths per minute will activate the parasympathetic nervous system. You can try different breathing rates to find specifically what works for you. It usually only takes 3-5 minutes to shift into the relaxation response. Practicing for just 5-10 minutes a day will create long lasting results.

Benefits of Relaxation

Chronic triggering of the fight or flight response sets the body up for ongoing muscle tension, anxiety, digestive issues, and hormone imbalances as well as increased risk for high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart attacks. Chronic stress can also lead to more aggressive behavior due to chronically high cortisol levels and diminished long-term thinking capabilities.

Taking time to relax every day has proven to reduce inflammation, allow the body to repair from injuries, reduce blood pressure, aid cardiovascular and brain issues, help prevent arthritis, and decrease pain signaling. Relaxation also increases emotional well-being, memory retention, creative thinking, cognitive skills, and helps with ADD management. Toning your parasympathetic nervous system will help you make better long-term decisions, solve problems more effectively, reduces emotional eating, and increases optimism.


A particularly useful benefit of Resonant Breathing relaxation technique is that it also increases self-observation. Self-observation is the ability to notice your thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors. Most people think they are self-observing, but when was the last time you misplaced your keys or couldn’t remember whether you completed a task or not? These are moments you were not observing! Self-observation greatly increases the ability to manage reactivity and strengthens emotional and social intelligence. These skills increase social connections and happiness, two major keys to longevity.

To increase your self-observation during Resonant Breathing, be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and sensation which arise while you are relaxing. Every time your attention shifts aware from the breath, simply notice what you are paying attention to. Is it a thought? A feeling? A sensation? Observe where your attention has gone and then simply guide your attention back to your breath. Meditation isn’t about have no thoughts or feelings. It is about observing what is arising in the moment and strengthening the ability to notice.

Get Started

So let’s get started! Here are some videos on YouTube which will guide you through the technique of Resonant Breathing.

What helps you relax after stress? Share your comments below!

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