Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Did you know that breathing properly can help reduce stress and anxiety and contribute to all-round improved health?
It’ll come as no surprise to you of course that we all need to breathe! In a nutshell, we breathe in oxygen which is carried by the circulation to all our body systems to keep us functioning properly. But did you know that from the moment you took your first gasp as a new born baby, you have probably averaged around 23,000 breaths a day in your resting state – that’s 250 million breaths by the time you reach 30!
The power of correct breathing has long been appreciated by various wisdom traditions such as Yoga and Meditation. And I’m sure we can all relate to instances when we have needed to stop and take a deep breath to help us calm down in a stressful situation. And now recent research is providing scientific evidence of these benefits - while quick, shallow and unfocused breathing may contribute to a whole host of problems, including anxiety, depression and high blood pressure, breathing with greater control can bring many benefits to both our mental and physical health. In particular, scientists are finding that around six breaths a minute can be especially restorative, triggering a 'relaxation response' in the brain and body. One of the ways this is thought to work is that by repeatedly stimulating the Vagus nerve during those long exhalations, slow breathing activates the Parasympathetic nervous system, shifting the nervous system towards a more restful state and resulting in positive changes like a lower heart rate and lower blood pressure. Also, studies have found that slow, deep breathing can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, relieve insomnia and help people cope better with pain.
It is not just the rate and depth of breathing that is important, but also the way we actually breathe.
There are two main types of breathing: chest breathing and abdominal breathing.
Constantly breathing into our upper chest can make the body tense, as if it is under stress. This is because when the upper chest muscles are activated it increases feelings of anxiety.
Abdominal breathing is the most efficient and relaxed way of getting enough air into our lungs.
It helps you relax, lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on the body.
It helps lower heart rate and blood pressure (National Institute of Health).
It improves core muscle stability.
It improves the body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise.
It lowers the chances of injuring or wearing out our muscles.
It slows the rate of breathing so that we expend less energy.
A word of caution:
- Abdominal breathing isn’t always useful on its own. Research on Autonomic Nervous System-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have found that deep breathing is often most effective as a treatment when combined with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) or hypnotherapy (National Institute of Health).
- Deep breathing exercises may not always be helpful if you have a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or another similar mental health condition.
However, by consciously increasing our awareness about breathing, and by practising breathing exercises, it is possible to improve our sense of well-being and decrease our levels of stress in many cases. Why not give the following exercises a try?
Abdominal Breathing exercises
Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor, your bed, or another comfortable, flat surface. Undo any tight clothing. Spend a few moments settling yourself down.
Relax your shoulders, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing.
Become aware of how fast or slow you are breathing and whether you are breathing with your chest or diaphragm. Do not try to change your breathing for the moment.
Now put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose for about two seconds. As you breathe in, allow the abdomen to rise. There should be little or no movement in the chest.
Purse your lips (as if you’re about to drink through a straw) and exhale slowly for about two seconds, allowing the abdomen to flatten. Let your breath become smooth and regular.
Now slow down your out breaths to about 4 seconds, then be conscious of a comfortable pause before allowing your in-breaths to follow smoothly and easily. If any distractions, thoughts or worries come into your mind, allow them to come, then allow them to go, and just bring your attention back to your breathing.
Repeat these steps several times.
When you are ready to end this exercise, take a few deeper breaths in and then gradually open your eyes.
How do you feel now?
There are so many breathing exercises and breathing-based meditations available to choose from. Why not do your own research and find something that suits you? If you practise regularly, you will definitely start to notice the benefits.