Breathing is a fundamental necessity of life that most of us take for granted. With each breath we obtain oxygen and then exhale carbon dioxide. Poor breathing habits diminish the flow of these gases into and out of our bodies, which may make it harder to cope with stressful situations. In fact, certain breathing patterns may actually contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, depression, muscle tension, headaches and fatigue.
Rapid breathing (also called chest or thoracic breathing) is part of our fight-or-flight response and is operated by our sympathetic nervous system, says Esther Sternberg, a physician, author and researcher at the National Institutes of Health, in an interview with National Public Radio. Deep breathing (also called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing) engages our parasympathetic reaction, which calms us down.
By becoming more aware of our breathing and practicing slowing and normalizing our breaths, we may learn to quiet our minds and relax our bodies, reducing our heart rates, blood pressure and stress hormone levels. Breath awareness and good breathing habits can enhance psychological and physical well-being, practiced alone or with other relaxation techniques.
Simple Breathing Exercises
The process of a simple breathing exercise can be learned in a matter of minutes and some of its benefits are experienced immediately. Regular practice of a breathing exercise can have profound effects in a matter of weeks, if not days. After you’ve tried the exercises presented here, develop a breathing program of your own, incorporating the exercises you find most helpful. Follow your program daily for best results.
When we breathe, we typically use one of two patterns:
Chest or thoracic breathing is an all-too-common malady of modern life. Linked with stress, anxiety or other forms of emotional distress, chest breathing is shallow and can be irregular and rapid.
Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing, the natural breathing of newborn babies and sleeping adults, is deeper and slower than chest breathing, as well as more rhythmic and relaxing.
Letting Go of Tension Exercise
1. Inhale diaphragmatically (with your abdomen rather than your chest expanding) as you say to yourself “breathe in.”
2. Hold your breath a moment before you exhale.
3. Exhale slowly and deeply as you say to yourself “relax.”
4. Inhale slowly, then hold your breath for a moment, noticing any parts of your body that tense up.
5. As you exhale, feel the tension leaving your body. With each exhalation, feel increasingly relaxed as you release tension.
6. Pause between each breath, finding your natural rhythm.
7. When thoughts, feelings and sensations catch your attention, simply observe them and then re-focus on your breathing.
8. Once you’re comfortable with this exercise, practice it throughout the day in nonstressful situations for five to 20 minutes at a time. Then try using it in stressful situations to reduce your tension.
9. As you practice, focus on exhaling completely: You must exhale fully before you can breathe in deeply.
Mindful Breath Counting
1. Practice this exercise while sitting upright to enhance mindfulness awareness. Later, if you like, you can use it in bed as a technique to help you fall asleep.
2. Use slow, deep abdominal breathing.
3. Count each exhalation to yourself. When you reach the fourth exhalation, start over again at one. Here is how you do it: Inhale…exhale (“one”)…inhale…exhale (“two”)…inhale…exhale (“three”)…inhale…exhale (“four”)…inhale…exhale (“one”)…and so forth.
4. If your mind wanders to bodily sensations, noises, daydreams, worries and so forth, simply observe those thoughts without judgment or expectation, and then return to counting your breaths.
5. If you lose track of your count, simply start over again at “one.”
6. Continue counting your exhalations in sets of four for 10 minutes. Gradually increase to 20 minutes.
Alternate Breathing Exercise
Although most people find this balancing exercise useful, those suffering from tension or sinus headaches often find it particularly beneficial. Begin by doing five cycles, and then increase to 10 to 25 cycles.
1. Sit in a comfortable position with good posture.
2. Rest the index and middle finger of your right hand in the center of your forehead.
3. Close your right nostril with your right thumb.
4. Inhale slowly through your left nostril.
5. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger, simultaneously opening your right nostril.
6. Exhale slowly and as thoroughly as possible through your right nostril.
7. Keeping your left nostril closed, inhale through your right nostril.
8. Close your right nostril with your right thumb and open your left nostril.
9. Exhale through your left nostril.
10. Inhale through your left nostril, beginning the next cycle.
Little Tension Releasers
During the day, there are many moments when we can benefit from a short time-out. For example, when we catch ourselves sighing or yawning, it’s generally a sign that we are not getting enough oxygen. Since a sigh or a yawn actually does release a bit of tension, you can practice sighing or yawning at will as a way to relax. Make a conscious effort to sit or stand up straight when doing so.
Abdominal Breathing and Imagination
1. Place your hands gently on your solar plexus (the point where your ribs start to separate above your abdomen). Get comfortable and begin to relax as you breathe diaphragmatically for a few minutes.
2. Imagine that energy is rushing into your lungs with each incoming breath of air and being immediately stored in your solar plexus. Then imagine that this energy is flowing out to all parts of your body with each exhalation. Make a mental picture of this energizing process.
3. Continue doing this exercise for at least five to 10 minutes a day on a daily basis.
Breathing Exercise Preparation
1. Choose a time and place to learn these breathing exercises where you won’t be disturbed. While you are learning to do them, try to consistently do your daily practice in the same place and at the same time. However, a number of these exercises, once mastered, can be done anywhere you find yourself in a stressful situation.
2. Think about what position is best for you. If your goal in practicing a breathing exercise is to be relaxed and to maintain optimal awareness of your experience, try it from a seated position. If your goal is to relax and possibly fall asleep, practice it lying down. If you’re seated while you do these exercises, remember to maintain good posture with your head comfortably balanced on your spine, your arms and legs uncrossed, and your feet firmly placed on the floor. As a beginner, you likely will find it easier to learn how to breathe diaphragmatically while lying down. Here are two lying-down positions:
• If you have back problems, the “knees raised” pose is best. Bend your knees and move your feet about eight inches apart, with your toes turned slightly outward. Make sure your spine is straight.
• When you use the “dead body” pose, your legs are straight and slightly apart, your toes pointing outward comfortably. Your arms are at your sides and not touching your body, your palms are up, and your eyes closed.
3. Whichever position you choose, take a moment to check in with yourself before beginning your breathing exercise. Mentally scan your whole body, releasing points of obvious tension, and shift your position, if necessary, to be more comfortable.
4. It’s generally preferred to breathe through your nose. If needed, clear your nasal passages before doing breathing exercises. If you are congested, it’s okay to breathe through your mouth.
Adapted with permission from The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook, published by New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright (c) 2008 Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, & Matthew McKay.