October 2, 2018

Has anyone ever told you to take a deep breath when you are getting upset about something? It’s actually really good advice. It turns out that breathing is not only one of the most fundamental functions of our body, but learning to control it and use it can have healing functions and help us relax.

We usually take breathing for granted. We don’t have to think about it. It just happens. In school, we learn that its primary purpose is to inhale air with oxygen that can be used as fuel (together with food) and to exhale air with carbon dioxide, which is a waste product of the same energy production in every cell of your body. So how can we use it to help us relax and heal?

There is much more to breathing than just energy production. Breathing is closely related to our nervous system and other functions of the body. And it is this coupling of functions that puts breathing into a central role to reduce the activity levels of our nervous system, helping us to relax.

Make breathing mindful

While breathing is mostly an unconscious process, you can focus on your breath and become aware of the process. You can, for example, change the frequency by breathing faster or slower. Varying the intensity by breathing deeper and inhaling more air can yield calming effects. You can even change how you breathe by lifting your shoulders, extending your chest or by pushing your belly outward.

People have known for a long time that the conscious control of breathing can lead to a more relaxed state of mind. Research also backs up this notion. More than 4000 scientific publications on the subject already exist. So how can we reduce our stress by controlling our breathing? There are multiple ways of doing this, but the most used techniques are the following:

Breathe slowly

Fast breathing, such as inhaling for 1-second and exhaling for 1-second, activates your nervous system. We all know this from experience. Think of a time when you were suddenly scared, your breathing increased (as do other functions like heart rate). Whenever your body prepares for some action, breathing frequency increases. This is quite the opposite of relaxation! Disorders like anxiety and chronic pain are also known to be accompanied by irregular and superficial breathing. People with reduced levels of stress and stable mood patterns, like experienced meditators or breathing practitioners, typically have a decreased heart rate at rest.

Breathe out longer than you breathe in

Exhaling calms the nervous system down while inhaling activates it. If you measure your pulse, you can feel your heart rate increase and decrease relating to your breathing process. The better you become at slowing down your breath and prolonging your exhalation, the lower your heart rate will become. Neither inhaling nor exhaling is better or more important than the other, but it is the ratio between them that can be beneficial. Although everybody agrees on the slow breathing, some clinicians and researchers keep the time to inhale and exhale identical and still see improvements in relaxation.

Practice abdominal breathing

After you have slowed down your breathing, it is important to focus on the mechanics of it. By focusing on pushing the belly outward during inhalation, you can increase the efficiency of your breathing technique and further increase the relaxation associated with it. You can place a hand on your belly that should move while inhaling. Chest and shoulders should not move, so it requires quite some attention to do this type of deep belly breathing. It is therefore recommended to do these steps after each other and not try to do it all at once. First train yourself to reduce the breathing rhythm, then increase the exhalation time, followed by focusing on the belly.

Breathing is an automatic process and to change it is a learning process that takes time, like anything else. You should practice every day, preferably mornings and evenings, at a time where you can fully focus on the exercise without distractions. Interested in learning how to improve your breathing and relaxation? Let us know by filling out the form below. We will contact you to participate in our next course or challenge and help you to improve your health. The results might surprise you!

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Editorial note:

Learning to focus on your breathing can help you to relax and aid your recovery. Join our challenge and give it a try.

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