According to a clinical study by De Couck and colleagues, deep breathing improves decision-making.¹ This happens through the role of the autonomic nervous system. This system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. With an understanding of these systems, we can learn how to use deep breathing to make better decisions.
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
Sometimes, we as humans need to react to our environment in a defensive manner, and sometimes, we do not. Each of these situations leads to different reactions from our nervous system. In a “fight or flight” situation, a system of neurons called the sympathetic nervous system will activate.² This sets off the stress response.
When a stress response is not needed, and we should “rest and digest.” The parasympathetic nervous system will activate, and we will relax.³ These two systems regulate each other through stimulation, and this balance can be measured through heart rate.⁴
Stress and Decision-Making
The sympathetic nervous system directs stress response based on the stimuli we receive. Sometimes, this response can be helpful, and it can help us improve on focusing on a long-term reward. Acute or short-term stress can sometimes improve one’s focus on long-term reward.⁵ Yet, stress often impairs our decision-making ability.⁶ We take more risks and pay less attention to the outcome of our decisions.⁷ So, when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, we tend to make worse decisions.
The good news is that there are ways to switch the response and activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When this happens, our stress response will decrease, and we can make better decisions. But, how can we do this?
Deep Breathing and Stress
Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibits the sympathetic nervous system.⁸ It stimulates the vagus nerve, which in turn reduces the stress response and brings the body back to homeostasis.⁹ It is well known that deep breathing can reduce one’s stress response. Thus, it improves our ability to make good decisions.¹⁰
De Couck and colleagues proved this in their study by having certain participants do deep breathing exercises.¹ Control participants watched an emotionally neutral movie. Afterward, they had to make decisions in an imaginary business context. Those who used deep breathing exercises made better decisions, and had higher vagal nerve activity as shown by their heart rate.¹
Deep Breathing Methods
The next time you have an important decision to make, or simply want to feel less stressed, try breathing in a slow-paced manner. There are several techniques you can use, such as belly breathing and the 4-7-8 method.
But it doesn’t matter what technique you use, as long as the breath is slow and purposeful. With deep breaths, your body will signal to itself that it’s no longer in danger, and a more rational decision-making process can occur.
1 De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A., & Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 139, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011
2 Winklewski, P. J., Radkowski, M., & Demkow, U. (2016). Relevance of Immune-Sympathetic Nervous System Interplay for the Development of Hypertension. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 884, 37–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/5584_2015_169
3 Furness, J. B. (2009). Parasympathetic Nervous System. In Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (pp. 445–446). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-008045046-9.01990-2
4 Khan, A. A., Lip, G. Y. H., & Shantsila, A. (2019). Heart rate variability in atrial fibrillation: The balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 49(11), e13174. https://doi.org/10.1111/eci.13174
5 Byrne, K. A., Cornwall, A. C., & Worthy, D. A. (2019). Acute stress improves long-term reward maximization in decision-making under uncertainty. Brain and Cognition, 133, 84–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2019.02.005
6 Raio, C. M., Konova, A. B., & Otto, A. R. (2020). Trait impulsivity and acute stress interact to influence choice and decision speed during multi-stage decision-making. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 7754. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64540-0
7 Ceccato, S., Kudielka, B. M., & Schwieren, C. (2015). Increased Risk Taking in Relation to Chronic Stress in Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 2036. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.02036
8 Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses, 67(3), 566–571. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042
9 Kim, H. S., & Yosipovitch, G. (2013). An aberrant parasympathetic response: a new perspective linking chronic stress and itch. Experimental Dermatology, 22(4), 239–244. https://doi.org/10.1111/exd.12070
10 Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F., & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451–458. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8