Breathing is free, can be practiced anywhere, occurs about 20,000 times per day, and requires no special equipment.
The benefits to improving the way you breathe are vast. Taking deeper and slower inhales and exhales can help your body increase immunity, lower blood pressure, and heal faster. Taking fuller breaths – inhaling, exhaling– makes you feel more content.
Just watch babies sleeping, and you have a perfect role model! Sleeping babies draw air deep into their lungs, which then expands their abdomen. They then exhale nice and smoothly. When we as adults can slow down our breathing, we decrease our stress response and elicit the relaxation response. Like a sleeping baby!
Focusing on the breath can ground us in the present moment. This in and of itself can be a useful tool to reduce worry.
“I get bored just focusing on my breath. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. That gets monotonous”, said Katie (not her real name), who wanted to learn ways to reduce anxiety without taking medications. Here are a couple of the strategies she used instead.
1. On the inhale, say a positive word (like ‘calm’, ‘peace’). On the exhale imagine breathing out something negative (like ‘stress’, ‘worry’). You could also visualize breathing in a soft, soothing color. Another option is to count: in on one, and out on two; in on three and out on four, and so on until 10. The sequence can be repeated for up to 5 minutes.
2. Alternative Nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana) is a common yoga breath practice that balances the left and right sides of the brain. To do it, sit comfortably. Bring your right hand to your nose, with the two middle fingers between your eyebrows. With your thumb gently hold your right nostril closed. Inhale through your left nostril. Release your thumb, and hold your left nostril closed with your ring finger, exhaling through your right nostril. Inhale right, release the ring finger, hold your right nostril with your thumb, and breathe out left. continue this for 5 back and forth rounds.
3. Belly breathing. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in through your nose, making sure your diaphragm, and not your chest, inflates with enough air to create stretch in the lungs. Ultimately, the goal is 6 to 10 deep, slow breaths per minute for 10 minutes each day. This will likely cause immediate reductions to heart rate and blood pressure. Keep at it longer and those benefits will last longer. If you are often in a state of flight or flight, you might be surprised how hard it is to control your breath. To help train your breath, consider biofeedback tools such as McConnell’s Breathe Strong app , which can help you pace your breathing.
On a more scientific note, when we breathe deeply we are activating our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for what happens when our body is at rest. It is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which stimulates activities associated with the fight-or-flight-or freeze response. The PNS is the calm, and the SNS is the storm.
Of all the automatic functions of the body — cardiovascular, digestive, hormonal, glandular, immune — only the breath can be easily controlled voluntarily
There are so many breathing tools and techniques to discuss. Stay tuned for more on this topic! I will also show a funny clip from a 1980s movie to help make some of the points of this post more clear.