Have you ever been told to “take a deep breath” when you’re upset, worried, or stressed?
It’s good advice since deep breathing is a well-known technique to help relieve stress.
Deep breathing not only can help you relax, but it might improve your health in other ways as well.
What is deep breathing?
Breathing is essential to life, but you likely don’t even pay attention to your breath because it’s automatic. When you breathe in, air fills your lungs, and the oxygen in the air moves to your bloodstream. Carbon dioxide (a gas waste product) moves from your blood to your lungs to be expelled when you breathe out.
Deep breathing has many names, including belly breathing and diaphragmatic breathing. It focuses on using the diaphragm to take deeper breaths compared to shallow “chest breathing.”
The diaphragm is a muscle that lies horizontally between the thoracic (chest) and abdominal (belly) cavities. The diaphragm is the most efficient muscle for breathing and is located just beneath the lungs. Your diaphragm and abdominal muscles work together to allow you to take deeper, more efficient breaths.
Taking deep breaths can be difficult if you have respiratory issues like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). If you’re not used to using your diaphragm to take deep breaths, the muscle can become weak and less efficient.
How it works
Deep breathing helps provide more oxygen to your body and brain. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” system, which is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” mode.
If you’re stressed or nervous, you’re probably in fight or flight mode. This increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, and can exacerbate feelings of anxiousness.
When you practice deep breathing, your parasympathetic nervous system can help calm you down and offset your sympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing can help slow your respiratory rate (how many breaths you take per minute), blood pressure, and increase nitric oxide levels. (Nitric oxide helps relax blood vessels to lower blood pressure.)
Deep breathing also helps you take your mind off of your stress and worries. Deep breathing connects your mind and your body and promotes a feeling of mindfulness.
When deep breathing may be useful
Stress and anxiety
Deep breathing is useful to practice whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious. One in five people suffers from a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.
Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
There are different types of anxiety. Some people suffer from generalized anxiety, whereas others have situational or social anxiety.
Besides practicing deep breathing, a licensed mental healthcare provider can also help you control your anxiety so it doesn’t rule your life.
People with high blood pressure
High blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death among both men and women. High blood pressure is also known as “the silent killer” because you usually can’t feel it when your blood pressure is high, even if it becomes dangerously high.
Deep breathing helps to lower your blood pressure by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It also increases nitric oxide levels in the blood, which helps to relax and dilate blood vessels. When your blood vessels are relaxed and dilated, blood pressure is lower.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) can have a hard time taking deep breaths. Air can get caught in their lungs instead of fully exchanging oxygen with inhales and expelling carbon dioxide with exhales.
COPD can make your diaphragm muscle weak. Practicing deep breathing exercises helps strengthen your diaphragm. Just like any muscle, the diaphragm will become stronger and help you take more efficient breaths with regular practice.
5 benefits of deep breathing
1) Lowers feelings of stress
The biggest benefit of practicing deep breathing exercises is its ability to lower feelings of stress. Other stress-relieving techniques like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness use deep breathing as the main strategy to achieve calmness and relaxation.
2) Improve mood
It’s challenging to be in a good mood when you’re stressed and anxious. Studies show that deep breathing can help improve your mood.
3) Activates your lymphatic system
Your lymphatic system circulates a clear fluid called lymph, which benefits your immune system, maintains your body fluid levels, removes cellular waste, and absorbs fats from your digestive system.
Deep breathing is one strategy for treating lymphedema, which is a buildup of fluid when the lymphatic system is blocked or damaged.
4) Improves cardiovascular endurance
Your lungs have elasticity to them, allowing you to take deep breaths. Deep breathing helps maintain elasticity in the lungs.
It also improves your awareness and ability to control your breath, which is helpful during exercise when oxygen needs are increased.
5) Helps to lower blood pressure
As mentioned earlier, exercise helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce blood pressure. While deep breathing is beneficial if you have high blood pressure, it’s not a substitute for high blood pressure medications if you’re already on them, so don’t stop taking your medications in exchange for deep breathing.
How To Do 4 Different Deep Breathing Exercises
There are different deep breathing exercises to try. Some of them might be better to do when you’re at home lying in bed, while others are ideal when you’re on the go and need a strategy you can practice while driving or sitting at your desk.
Basic belly breathing/pursed-lip breathing
Belly breathing is easy to do and helps you be more aware of how you’re breathing. Try this deep breathing exercise when you want to relax or relieve feelings of anxiety.
1. Sit or lie flat in a comfortable position.
2. Put one hand on your belly just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
3. Take a deep breath in through your nostrils while you let your belly push your hand out. Your chest shouldn’t move because that means you’re shallow breathing or “chest breathing.”
4. Breathe out through pursed lips like you’re whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out of your abdomen.
5. Do this breathing three to ten times. Take your time with each breath, and don’t rush it.
It’s important to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Your nostrils filter the air you’re breathing and help keep the air moist, whereas mouth breathing can dry out your mouth, throat, and even cause health problems long-term.
This deep breathing exercise uses the same strategies as belly breathing but adds counting to focus on your breaths.
You might find that holding your breath in the middle is difficult at first. But the more you practice deep breathing exercises, the easier it will become.
1. To start, put one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest as in the belly breathing exercise.
2. Take a deep, slow breath from your belly, and silently count to four as you breathe in.
3. Hold your breath and silently count from one to seven.
4. Breathe out completely as you silently count from one to eight. Try to get all the air out of your lungs by the time you count to eight without forcing it.
5. Repeat as many times as you need to feel calm.
Try this exercise when you first get up in the morning to relieve muscle stiffness and clear your airways. You can also use it throughout the day to relieve any tension or soreness in your back.
1. From a standing position, bend forward from the waist with your knees slightly bent, letting your arms dangle close to the floor.
2. As you breathe in slowly and deeply, return to a standing position by rolling up slowly, lifting your head last.
3. Hold your breath for just a few seconds in this standing position.
4. Breathe out slowly as you return to the original position, bending forward from the waist.
Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is similar to deep breathing. It’s used in yoga as a breath control practice.
8 steps to practice alternate nostril breathing:
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed.
2. Place your left hand on your left knee.
3. Lift your right hand toward your nose.
4. Exhale completely and then use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
5. Inhale through your left nostril and then close the left nostril with your fingers.
6. Open the right nostril and exhale through this side.
7. Inhale through the right nostril and then close this nostril.
8. Open the left nostril and exhale through the left side.
The above steps are for one cycle of nostril breathing. You can practice nostril breathing for up to five minutes to help promote relaxation.
Deep breathing is a technique popular for helping to relieve stress. It increases the oxygen delivered to your body, helps increase self-awareness, and can help improve your breathing efficiency.
Deep breathing can improve your mental health, can be done anywhere, is safe, and doesn’t cost anything – so why not start practicing today?