“Just take a deep breath and relax…”
This common expression refers to a very simple action yet embraces great wisdom and efficacy. The average adult takes approximately 20,000 breaths per day! Most of those breaths, however, are quite shallow—what experts refer to as “chest breathing.”
Simple, but often unconscious and overlooked, breathing can be highly potent and beneficial for physical and mental health.
More recently, science has delved into this topic, accumulating a considerable body of research supporting the effectiveness of deep-breathing techniques.
Although we cannot control whether or not we breathe, we can, to some extent, control the way that we breathe.
Breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for governing our responses to stimuli, deciding whether we are under threat, and tripping the signals that tell the body how to react. This is sometimes described as the “fight or flight”response.
The parasympathetic nervous system helps the body calm back down after the danger or stressor has passed.
One of the things that the sympathetic nervous system effects is breath. In the presence of real danger, the breath becomes fast and short as your body tries to load itself with oxygen to facilitate its escape. This kind of breathing is also a response to non-life-threatening stressors. It happens in response to panic and then perpetuates the panic.
When you're aware of the effect of stressors on your sympathetic nervous system, you can deliberately slow and deepen the breath by signaling the body that it's ok to calm down. Your breath is a powerful force you can use to control your body's responses to stress.
It can be incredibly simple and within minutes we can start to create a change internally tipping us more towards that parasympathetic, more calmer state of mind.
Be realistic and try to include the techniquesinto your day, practice them whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for a train, stuck in traffic, anywhere any time then you get the cumulative affect over the space of your day.
1. Breath Counting
This very basic breathing exercise can help you relax and centre your mind. Start by sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths, then let your breathing settle into its normal rhythm. As you exhale, mentally count “one.” On your next exhale, count “two.” Repeat this until you reach five, and then repeat the pattern from the beginning.
If you lose count before you reach five, start again at one. This may sound like an easy task, but it requires quite a lot of concentration. Bringing attention to your breath will stop churning thought cycles and ensure you inhale deeply and exhale completely, bringing you myriad benefits.
2. Equal Breathing
This exercise is all about balance. Begin by inhaling through your nose for three counts, then exhale through your nose for three counts. Once you’ve mastered that, try inhaling for four to six counts, then exhaling for the same number of counts.
This breathing exercise is a great way to calm the nervous system, increase focus, and reduce stress. It’s especially effective for dealing with insomnia. Similar to counting sheep, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, this breath can help take your mind off racing thoughts or whatever might be distracting you.
3. The Abdominal Breathing Technique
This technique helps to ensure you’re contracting your diaphragm as you breathe. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen, and then breathe in deeply through your nose. You should feel the hand on your belly rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
4. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This breathing technique is used to evoke feelings of calm and balance by uniting the left and right sides of the brain.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position. Place your thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your exhale, use your ring finger to close off your left nostril, then exhale through your right nostril. Next, inhale through your right nostril, close it off with your thumb, and exhale through your left nostril. Continue the pattern like that. This breathing exercise is the perfect way to increase focus and raise your energy levels.
5. Square/Box Breathing
The square breathing exercise uses the deep breathing pattern with internal and external breath retention. It consists of imagining each breath cycle as a square, as you inhale draw a line up one side of the box, hold the breath for a moment drawing the next line, exhalingdraw the next line, and holding just for a moment draw the final line.
This technique allows the body to relax and preserve energy, and studies suggest it is useful for muscle fatigue, headaches, and other stress-related symptoms. You will be hard-pressed to find one with a better endorsement than box breathing, this calming technique used by elite U.S. Navy SEALs!