Breathing isn’t something most of us often think about — until it becomes difficult. After a strenuous run, we’re out of breath and struggle to intake enough oxygen to propel us for the next mile. When we’re experiencing great stress, we feel our breathing become thin or labored. We focus on other aspects of our well-being (improving our form and posture, developing strength and flexibility, bettering our diets), but breathing is rarely given attention.
Deep, full breathing is a subtle yet powerful habit we can practice every day, in any location — whether on the commute to work or before we fall asleep at night — to reap significant emotional, psychological and physical benefits. Here, we reveal a few of the many results you can expect from giving your breath some TLC.
1. Reduced anxiety and stress. When we’re under intense pressure (envision your toughest week at work), the sympathetic nervous system is triggered. Breathing becomes shallow, drawing from the chest rather than deep in the lower lungs, leading to a sensation of breathlessness. Levels of cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) rise, increasing blood pressure and pulse. The vagus nerve acts as a brake that halts the stress reaction and engages the parasympathetic nervous system, eliciting a state of calm, the Cleveland Wellness Clinic notes. By practicing deep breathing — with full breaths filling your abdomen and engaging your diaphragm — you can activate your vagus nerve and regain balance.
2. Improved energy and mood. Feeling sluggish or grouchy? One of the most effective ways to instantly boost your energy and mood is to focus on the breath. A revealing 2010 research study demonstrated that manipulating participants’ breathing patterns resulted in significantly different emotional states. In the study, participants were instructed exactly how to breathe to combat feelings like fear and anxiety. By adjusting your posture and spending a few minutes taking deep, full breaths, you will increase the amounts of oxygen and feel-good hormones like oxytocin and prolactin that reach your brain. Balance and positivity will be restored.
3. Minimized pain. Mindful breathing can help diminish physical pain, be it chronic discomfort or episodic muscle cramps. Try to redirect your thoughts to the breath, silently saying the words “in” and “out” with each inhale and exhale. Deep breathing releases endorphins throughout the body, which serve as natural painkillers, while the practice of training your mind to find a state of calm amid intense pain will improve endurance.
4. Expanded lung capacity and stamina. With regular breathwork, your lungs are capable of expanding, thereby increasing your ability to perform at high altitudes or exercise for extended periods of time (on land or in water). Over time, practicing deep abdominal breathing can enable you to harness the full potential of your pulmonary system to intake and distribute oxygen throughout your body.
5. Peace of mind. Don’t underestimate this intuitive yet important benefit of mindful breathing. Expect enhanced self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-discipline. The benefits extend to our relationships: We can become more patient, insightful and thoughtful in how we react to the behaviors or actions of others.
Ready to begin your own practice of deep breathing? There are various techniques, and we suggest testing a few styles to find the one that best suits you. Try this popular method to start.
Abdominal Breathing Technique
- Find a stable yet comfortable position, whether seated or lying on a level surface.
- Close your eyes, if it feels natural, or soften your gaze.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
- Exhale completely through your mouth. Then, take a deep, slow breath in through your nose, inhaling for a count of 5.
- The hand on the abdomen should rise higher than the hand on your chest, ensuring that the diaphragm is inflating with enough air to fully inflate the lungs.
- Pause briefly, then exhale slowly for a count of 5.
- Continue for 5 minutes, with the goal of ultimately increasing to 10 minutes.