Deep breathing exercises are versatile and can be used anywhere at any time. I use them in my own day to day life and I teach them to my clients to help them to physically and emotionally relax.
The way you breathe can affect your emotions, your mental state and determine how you physically respond to stress.
You breathe over 20,000 times a day and often each inhale and exhale goes unnoticed. The way that you breathe has an effect on all the systems of your body. A shallow and quick breathing pattern can stimulate your ‘flight/fight/freeze’ system which makes your body feel anxious and stressed. The sympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated in times of stress and anxiety, controls your ‘flight/fight/freeze’ response, including raising your levels of cortisol and adrenaline that can be damaging when they persist for long periods. Learning to breathe deeply and consciously can reverse this feeling allowing your body and mind to feel relaxed and more present.
Try this now. Breathe in and out through your mouth. Now take a slow, deep breath in through your nose and open the back of your throat to relax it. Did you notice how different those 2 breathes felt?
The deep breathe with the open throat brings in at least twice as much oxygen as the other, and it dramatically expands your rib cage. This diaphragmatic breathing allows the air to go down into the lower lobes of the lungs where most of the air is and it stimulates the vagus nerve (the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system that runs through the diaphragm). So when you take a deep breath you are engaging your parasympathetic ‘rest and restore’ nervous system.
Deep breathing is the fastest way these systems can communicate, flicking the switch from high alert ‘flight/fight/freeze’ to low ‘rest and restore’ in a matter of seconds. Experiencing a deep breath into the abdomen is not only relaxing; it’s been scientifically proven to positively affect the heart, brain, digestive and immune system. Deep breathing alters your state of mind and helps your body to relax. Regularly engaging in 1-2 minutes of this breathing throughout the day will keep you calm and make you less anxious. This may take a little practice if you haven’t done it before, so keep practicing.
Try these deep breathing techniques to find the best one for you:
- Breathe slowly so that your inhalation and exhalation are the same duration. Count 1-2-3-4 in your mind while inhaling and 1-2-3-4 while exhaling.
- Add a pause, so inhale deeply for a count of 3, hold the breath for a second or two and then exhale slowly for a count of 3 and hold for a second or two. Keep your breathing even and smooth.
- This breathing exercise is excellent for calming both the nervous system and an overworked mind. This is a timed breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale. Begin with a count of 4 or 5 on the inhale and 7 or 8 on the exhale. Slowly work your way up to inhaling for a count of 7 and exhaling to a count of 11.
- Alternate nostril breathing can also help to slow and deepen your breathing. Using your thumb and ring fingers to gently open and close the nostrils, breath in 1 nostril and out the other. Repeat for 5 cycles and then change nostrils.
Note to self: Remember to breathe!
You can learn to effectively manage your physiological reaction to stress by teaching your body and mind to induce this relaxation response through deep breathing. Recognising the need to breathe deeply is half the battle; actually doing it regularly throughout the day is how you control and alter your stress levels. While breathing alone may not resolve the issue stressing you, it can empower you to healthfully adapt on mental, emotional and physical levels.
To help you to remember to regularly practice stress relief breathing throughout your day, set reminders on your mobile, or stick post-it notes up on your laptop, kettle and mirrors where you will easily see them. By taking a few moments in your day to really pay attention to the inhalation and exhalation that supports your life, you will feel calmer, healthier and happier. Small changes add up to big improvements and what better way to begin than breathing?