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The Power of Deep Breathing for Health and Wellbeing

March 12, 2021 7 min read

 

 

The Power of Deep Breathing for Health and Wellbeing

By Chelsea Clark

 

Most of us don’t spend too much time paying attention to how we breathe. After all, breathing is an unconscious activity; we don’t have to think about it, we just do it.

But focusing on how we breathe is actually very important. The way we breathe affects the physiology of our brains and our bodies, and it can have powerful effects on our mental and physical health.

If you want to take your health and wellbeing to the next level, then it’s time to become more mindful of how you are breathing. Read on to explore the physical and mental health benefits of deep breathing and learn easy breathing exercises you can do yourself.

 

What is deep breathing?

Most of us take short, shallow breaths all day long – especially when we are stressed. But that isn’t conducive to good health.

Deep breathing is a way of breathing in which you take full, deep breaths. Instead of just using your chest, a true deep breath will go all the way into your belly. You’ll use our diaphragm to inhale and exhale completely.

Deep breathing is an often overlooked, yet essential practice that can have profound impacts on your health and wellness. Although deep breathing techniques are gaining in popularity recently, they aren’t new; they have been around for thousands of years and are part of many ancient healing modalities like yoga and qigong.[1]

 

The mental and physical health benefits of deep breathing

Changing the rhythm of your breathing to slow, deep breaths actually results in physiological changes within the body. And those changes have far reaching effects when it comes to your health and wellness. Breathing deeply can change your respiratory function, cardiovascular function, immune function, and nervous system function, for example.[1,2]

Deep breathing can help to:

  • Manage stress
  • Improve mood and emotional state
  • Decrease feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Increase focus, attention, and cognitive performance
  • Support chronic conditions like asthma and COPD
  • Enhance self-esteem and life satisfaction
  • Boost immune function
  • Improve sleep and help fight insomnia
  • Increase physical performance and fitness
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve respiratory function
  • Increase oxygen levels
  • Release trapped air in your lungs
  • Reduce pain [1-18]

As you can see, there is a long list of reasons that deep breathing is good for you – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

One of the most powerful effects of deep breathing is to help your mind and body respond better to stress. Let’s take a closer look at the power of deep breathing for stress reduction.

 

How deep breathing helps you respond better to stress

Have you ever noticed that when you are under stress or are emotionally upset, you start to breathe more quickly and more shallowly? And that when you are relaxed and calm, you tend to breathe more slowly and deeply?

The way we breathe is linked to the way we feel and how we respond to stress.

The great news is that by intentionally changing the way you breathe, you can change the way you feel.[3,4] With practice, you can learn to breathe in a way that helps you to combat the effects of stress and anxiety, bringing you to a more calm, relaxed state of being.[3]

Here’s how it works:

When we encounter a stressor, our stress response (or “fight-or-flight” response) is turned on. This “fight-or-flight” response prepares us to react quickly to perceived threats. This is helpful in life-threatening situations, but in day-to-day life it can be triggered too often and our bodies can begin to overreact to things like traffic jams, relationship conflicts, or even a broken glass on the kitchen floor.

The reason deep breathing is so powerful is because it can actually quiet the “fight-or-flight” response and activate our “rest and digest” response instead. Deep breathing helps to switch off your stress response, telling your brain that all is safe and that it can relax.[3] Ultimately, this helps your body to respond much better to common stressors.

Studies show that after people are taught to breathe deeply, they are more likely to feel calm, relaxed, resilient, positive, and attentive, rather than stressed, anxious, and depressed.[2,4-6]

Deep breathing helps on a biological level, too. It can help to decrease cortisol levels, increase heart rate variability, and slow our breathing, all of which are physiological changes that help to combat the negative effects of stress.[2,5,7] The kinds of changes that occur are important in the long run, and they may even promote longevity and reduce the risk of mortality from disease.[1]

 

4 deep breathing exercises to try yourself

As you can see, deep breathing is an important piece of the health and wellness puzzle, especially if you are dealing with regular stress in your life.

But deep breathing doesn’t often come naturally to most of us. If you want to take advantage of the powerful effects of deep breathing, then you’ll have to put in the time to practice.

Here are some simple, easy exercises that can help you get better at deep breathing:

1. Diaphragmatic breathing (or deep belly breathing)

The diaphragm is a large muscle located underneath your lungs that helps you to breathe.  Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique intended to help you engage your diaphragm to breathe properly, so that you are breathing with your belly instead of just with your chest. When you breathe with your belly, you are able to more deeply inhale and exhale.

To try it:

  • Lie on your back on a flat surface. Put one hand on your abdomen and put the other on your chest.
  • Breathe in through your nose slowly, so that you feel your stomach pushing up against the hand that is placed there. Focus on breathing in deeply through your belly, not just into your chest. Try to keep the hand on your chest as still as possible.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose. The hand on your belly should fall as you release the breath, and the hand on your chest should again stay relatively still.
  • Continue to breathe in and out repeatedly for about 5 minutes, using your diaphragm as much as possible to take full, deep breaths. 
  • This may be challenging at first, and you may get tired while doing the exercise. But stick with it; the more you practice, the stronger your muscles will get and the easier it will be to do diaphragmatic breathing naturally. 

2. Paced breathing

The basic idea of paced breathing is to slow down your breathing so that you are only taking about 5-7 breaths per minute.

To try it:

  • If you’d like help keeping count, have a stopwatch or clock nearby. You can also download an app that provides visual or audio cues for when to breathe in and out, making it easier to keep the right pace.
  • Sit comfortably in a chair with your back upright, or lie down flat on your back.
  • Breathe in through your nose slowly and smoothly for about 5 seconds, and then breathe out through your nose slowly and smoothly for about 5 seconds. This will put you at about 6 breaths per minute.
  • Repeat, and continue this practice for about 5 minutes.
  • Be gentle with yourself as you learn to do paced breathing. It may be challenging at first, but will get easier with time. 

3. Alternate nostril breathing

A common breathing exercise used in yoga practices, alternate nostril breathing asks you to breathe in through one nostril and out through the other. This is thought to be a particularly relaxing breathing technique.

To try it:

  • Find a relaxed, comfortable position. Raise your right hand to your nose. 
  • Using your right thumb, plug your right nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, slowly and smoothly.
  • Using your right forefinger or pinky, plug your left nostril. Release your right thumb, and exhale fully through your right nostril.
  • Next, inhale through the right nostril. 
  • Plug your right nostril with your right thumb, and then exhale completely through your left nostril.
  • You have now completed one cycle of alternate nostril breathing.
  • You can repeat this cycle several times in one sitting. Always complete the exercise by breathing out through the left nostril.

4. Box breathing

Sometimes called square breathing, box breathing is another technique to help you slow and deepen your breaths. To do box breathing, you’ll follow a pattern of inhale-hold-exhale-hold and so on.

To try it:

  • Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You can be seated or lying down.
  • When you are ready, slowly inhale through your nose for four seconds. Be sure to keep your counts slow and steady – do not rush.
  • At the top of your inhale, hold your breath for four seconds.
  • Exhale slowly through your nose to the count of four.
  • Hold for four seconds.
  • You have now completed one cycle of box breathing. 
  • Continue breathing in this way for several minutes, inhaling for four, holding for four, exhaling for four, holding for four, and so on.

To take your learning further, explore resources on breathing from experts like Dr. Andrew Weil or Wim Hof. You may also consider joining a yoga class or tai chi class. These types of mindful movements incorporate breath work into the practice, and they are a wonderful way to combine physical activity with deep breathing techniques.

 

Summary

Deep breathing is an amazing tool that can have positive effects on your brain and body. Practicing deep breathing can help you to better manage stress, improve your mood, sleep better, increase cognitive function, improve your respiratory health, and so much more. 

And the best part is that deep breathing is completely free, doesn’t require any special equipment, and can be done anytime and anywhere. All you need is yourself, some focused attention, and a little bit of quiet time.

Get started today by trying out one of the exercises above, and begin to feel the powerful effects of better breathing right away.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5709795/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6137615/
  3. https://www.va.gov/WHOLEHEALTHLIBRARY/tools/diaphragmatic-breathing.asp
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33623726/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32667254/
  7. https://hbr.org/2020/09/research-why-breathing-is-so-effective-at-reducing-stress
  8. https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/
  9. https://www.wimhofmethod.com/breathing-exercises
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6361823/
  11. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/30/1322174111
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27538513/
  13. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9443-pursed-lip-breathing
  14. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27632818/
  16. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/wellness/breathing-exercises
  17. https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/jn.00551.2017
  18. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930143000392?journalCode=pcem20


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