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 how to focus on it can help us relax and heal.
We usually take breathing for granted because 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 and to exhale air with carbon dioxide, supplying every cell in our with the oxygen and energy it needs. So how can we use it to help us?
Breathing is closely related to our nervous system and affects 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
People have known for a long time that the conscious control of breathing can lead to a more relaxed state of mind. And research tells us the same thing. More than 4000 scientific publications on the subject already exist. So how can we reduce our stress by focusing on our breathing?
While breathing is mostly an unconscious process, you can focus on your breath and become aware of the process. If you start by counting the number of times you breathe in a minute, it will help you focus your attention. Then, you can, for example, change the frequency of your breath by breathing faster or slower or vary the intensity by breathing deeper and inhaling more air. You can even change how you breathe by lifting your shoulders, extending your chest or by pushing your belly outward. These changes can yield calming effects.
Here’s a breif explanation of how to use some of the most common techniques to help you focus on your breathing and relax.
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. Whenever your body prepares for some action, breathing frequency increases. This is quite the opposite of relaxation!
That’s why you should try to slow things down. Slowly inhale and slowly exhale. You will find you can think more clearly, your heart rate will slow down, and your stress levels will decrease.
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 benefits of breathing slowly, 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.
Putting it all together
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. Practice one aspect at a time. Soon it will all come together, and you’ll start to feel more relaxed.