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The Phrenic Nerve: Your Secret Weapon Against Stress and Anxiety

Updated: Nov 7, 2023


Do you ever find yourself in a state of stress or anxiety, desperately seeking a way to shut off that overwhelming fight-or-flight response? For years, the go-to advice has been to take a big, deep breath and hold it. But what if I told you that there's a more effective technique that can help you regain control over your nervous system and calm your mind? Enter the Phrenic Nerve, the unsung hero of stress relief that's here to steal the spotlight from the Vagus Nerve.

The Phrenic Nerve: A New Superhero in Town

We've all been there, whether it's dealing with everyday anxieties, fears, or simply trying to find a moment of relaxation during a chatty massage session. Deep, measured breaths have long been the remedy of choice. However, according to Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, we might have been approaching this all wrong.

Dr. Huberman's groundbreaking research suggests that inhaling deeply, which causes the diaphragm to move downward, doesn't necessarily put the brakes on your stress response. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. When the diaphragm descends, it creates more space for the heart to expand, slowing down the blood flow. The heart's SA Node, a tiny pacemaker-like structure, signals to the brain that something unusual is happening in the heart, prompting the brain to speed up your heart rate. This isn't exactly what you want when you're trying to calm down in a stressful situation.

The Power of the "Physiological Sigh"

Dr. Huberman introduces the concept of the "physiological sigh," a remarkable discovery made back in the 1930s but relatively unknown until now. It turns out that when we're in a state of stress, we can't effectively control our racing minds with the power of our thoughts alone. This can be especially challenging for individuals with conditions like ADHD, anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, and more. Often, the root causes of their anxiety and the fight-or-flight response are rooted in their minds to begin with.

But here's the good news: our brains have a remarkable tool at their disposal – the Phrenic Nerve. Through this neural pathway, our brains can activate what's known as the "Physiological Sigh." Think of it as a secret superpower.

So, what exactly does this "Physiological Sigh" entail? It's quite simple – you need to breathe as if you've just had a good, hard cry. You know, the kind where you take a couple of those short, quick breaths, followed by a long exhale. It's the classic "Sniff, Sniff, Sigh" pattern.

Two Short Breaths and a Long Exhale

The key to the "Physiological Sigh" is taking two short, strong breaths in through your nose, followed by a long exhale out through your mouth. When you exhale, your diaphragm moves up, exerting pressure on your heart and causing blood to flow more quickly. Once again, the SA Node sends a message to the brain, but this time, it's to slow down your heart rate.

Additionally, when you're under stress, the small sacs in your lungs can collapse, making it harder to breathe. Those two short breaths in open up the flattened sacs, releasing trapped carbon dioxide. An increase in CO2 levels in your blood can also contribute to feelings of anxiety.

The "Physiological Sigh" in Action

The beauty of the "Physiological Sigh" is that it's a simple and effective technique that you can use practically anywhere, at any time. When I practice this method, I find myself calming down in under two minutes, and my brain begins to regain its capacity for rational thinking. This ability to have a focused mind is crucial, particularly for those who grapple with mental health issues. Just like strengthening our muscles through exercise, we can improve our ability to control our thoughts and emotions through practice.


In a world that's constantly pushing us to the brink of stress and anxiety, it's empowering to discover simple, science-backed techniques like the "Physiological Sigh" to help us regain control of our nervous systems. So, next time you're feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to harness the power of your Phrenic Nerve and breathe your way to calm and clarity. To explore the science in greater detail, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Andrew Huberman's podcast on Phrenic Nerve breathing. Your mind will thank you.

Tara Wood, L.M.T.


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