When you feel anxious or your mind spirals into thoughts about the future or the past, your body automatically activates your sympathetic nervous system to prepare you to fight or flee. In short bursts and where warranted (if you’re facing an impending deadline, for example) your fight-or-flight response serves a purpose: it can give you the mental and physical energy to react accordingly. If prolonged, however, it can lead to a variety of health issues.
Your breath is one of the most powerful tools you have to calm your mind and nervous system and strengthen your immune system.
The health benefits of deep breathing
Deep breathing – especially where the exhale is longer than the inhale – activates the vagus nerve to increase the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates your rest-and-relax response. At the same time, it turns down your sympathetic nervous system.
In addition to calming your mind and relaxing your nervous system, deep breathing brings more oxygen to every cell and system in your body. Fully oxygenated blood allows for better absorption of nutrients and vitamins, which leads to improved digestion, increased energy and improved immunity. Endorphins – our ‘feel good’ hormones – are released too, which help to reduce pain. Honing the skill of deep breathing also offers the possibility of awareness, peace, clarity and freedom even in the most difficult moments.
Ways to access deep breathing
‘Breathe deeply’ is sometimes easier said than done, especially in moments of stress or anxiety. Turning to the breath in these moments can even appear to worsen the anxiety or feelings of constriction in the body – it is important to be aware of this and not give up. Given the essential benefits of deep breathing, getting to know your breath and work with it is worth persevering.
There are many different approaches to a breath practice and what works for one person may not work for you. Your breath is intimate. It reaches all parts of you and is unique. Whilst there are techniques that can help to access deeper breathing, what’s more important is to gently lean into your experience as you explore and get to know your breath and feel the effects of the different techniques.
Here are six of many possibilities to find a way into breathing deeply, when it may not be so easy:
- If you are a beginner to breathwork, it is often easier to access a fuller breath laying down on your back, with your knees bent. This frees up the diaphragm and the abdomen and you can imagine you are expanding a balloon inside your abdomen and diaphragm as you breathe in.
- Focus on the exhale. Most of us begin to breathe in again before we have exhaled completely. When you breathe out try to keep doing so until you are empty, and then try to breathe out a little more. Then simply let the inhale come in naturally through the nose, rather than trying to breathe in. It helps if you can keep your jaw very soft, even with the lips slightly apart. When you can breathe in this relaxed way, allowing the natural inhale, there is often a softening of your system. It is subtle, yet it offers a profound sense of calm.
- Practice simple nasal breathing. Try closing your eyes and noticing the feel of the air as it passes in and out through your nostrils to help focus your mind on your breath. Now try to bring the in and the out breath into balance – so that they are the same length, steady and even. When you are comfortable with this, pause briefly at the turn of the breath – at the end of the inhale and the end of the exhale – to help slow down the breathing process and calm your body and mind.
- Once you have mastered nasal breathing and can find a steady, even flow of breath, the next step is to adjust the flow, so the exhale is longer than the inhale. Find a comfortable position where you can sit with the spine elevated. This can be on a chair or sat cross legged on a cushion. Now try the 2-1-4-1 calming breath. Beginning with the simplest counting ratio, inhale for a count of 2, pause for 1, exhale for a count of 4 and then pause for 1. Stay with this count until you are comfortable with it, without any strain. Practice softening your face, eyes, throat, the inside of your mouth etc as you breathe and notice how this is.
Once this feels entirely comfortable, you can set a timer and practice for five minutes each day. You can also draw on this practice in the moments that you notice anxiety or a stressful situation.
Over time, once you have established a simple, consistent practice, you can increase the counting ratio. For example, inhale 4, pause 2, exhale 8, pause 2. If you notice any anxiety or constriction with the longer breath, come back down to the lower count. Often with breathwork, it is a case of less is more. Having an evenly balanced, steady and easeful breath is more beneficial than striving for a longer count, as the main aim is to turn on the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
- If you are feeling really agitated, restless or anxious, some form of movement can be a good way in. In fact, in the yoga tradition, asansa (the physical postures) are designed as the entry point into the practice, eventually leading to a steady mind where meditation can arise. Breathwork often comes later, after some basics of physical postures are mastered. If yoga is not for you, then try other forms of movement like walking, jogging, tai chi, dancing, jumping, running. Raising your heart rate a little will help to settle your system, so you can then breathe deeply.
- If you notice slight tension or constriction in your chest and upper body, try exaggerating a sigh and exhaling strongly through your mouth, making a sighing sound. Sometimes a yawn may come as you release tension. After a few breaths like this, constrictions (usually in the throat or upper chest), may release. At this point it is good to consciously take your in-breath through the nose. As your system settles, move to nasal breathing only.
We hope you find these suggestions useful. In these challenging times, we are now offering guided breath awareness practices online. Learn more about our free Monday Mindfulness sessions here or sign up here.