Does Deep Breathing Really Do Anything?
Updated April 23, 2019
How many times have you been angry, stressed, or anxious and someone told you to just take a deep breath?
Oftentimes, we write this phrase off as just what you’re supposed to say when you don’t really know how to help. But the truth of the matter is, taking a deep breath is likely exactly what you should do when you’re angry, stressed, or anxious.
Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, most of us subconsciously changed the way we breathe – and not for the better.
As babies and children, we naturally breathe deeper – ever notice how a baby’s belly rises and falls as they breathe in and out? Yet as adults, it’s our chest that rises and falls when we breathe.
Why does this matter?
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, shallow, chest breathing won’t help you feel any better. But deep, belly breathing could.
Deep Breathing Fundamentals
When you take a deep breath in, your heart rate quickens slightly. As you exhale, your heart rate slows. Repeated deep breaths will naturally bring your heart rate more in sync with your breath. This leads your brain to release endorphins, which are chemicals that have a natural calming effect. But if you’re stuck shallow breathing, that endorphin release doesn’t happen.
It’s no coincidence that deep breathing is the groundwork in so many types of meditation. This calming effect can be so significant that there’s research linking meditation to a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms; as well as improved sleep and focus. And it all comes back to the breath.
But that’s not all that happens.
Meditation and the Brain
Some studies show that meditation can change the structure of our brains and improve neuroplasticity. This could be due to the fact that the brain is so oxygen dependent, using 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. And just like any other body part, if it doesn’t get what it needs, symptoms can manifest. So, a deficit in oxygen could cause you to feel foggy, unfocused, or on edge.
None of this is to say that taking a few deep breaths now and then will cure your depression, but more so this type of breathing practice might stand to be a useful coping tool for lessening symptoms for a range of issues.
If you’re ready to give deep breathing practice a try but you don’t know where to start, here are a couple of options you can try right at home.
Start by sitting on a comfortable chair in a quiet room with the lights dimmed. (You may find it enjoyable to add quiet, gentle music with no lyrics.)
Close your eyes. Try to clear your mind and push away extraneous thoughts. Whenever a stray thought comes to mind during the course of your meditating, just push it gently aside. Remember to count slowly at each step.
Now try this…
- Deeply breathe in, counting to three, and breathe out, counting to three
- Start by focusing your attention on your toes. Imagine a tingling sensation there. Then relax your toes. Inhale, exhale.
- Move your focus up your body to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, neck, chin, and cheeks. Imagine a tingling sensation in each spot before relaxing and moving on. Inhale and exhale with each muscle group.
- After your cheeks, focus your attention on the spot right between your eyebrows. Relax your eyebrows. Inhale, exhale.
- Imagine you are in a field with green grass as far as you can see. In the distance is a big, beautiful tree. Imagine yourself walking toward that tree, sitting down under it and relaxing. Inhale, exhale.
- Allow yourself to notice any thoughts, feelings or sensations that come to mind. Don’t analyze them, just note them. You’re simply paying attention, not thinking of them as good or bad or trying to think more deeply about them. Do this for five minutes. Inhale, exhale.
- Imagine yourself standing up and leaving the tree and walking back to where you started. Inhale, exhale.
- Focus your attention on your toes. Imagine a tingling sensation there. Relax your toes. Inhale, exhale.
- Continue focusing on the parts of your body until you reach the spot between your eyebrows. Once you do, you may either start at your toes again or open your eyes and end your session.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Sit or lie down somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes and relax your mind. Run through each muscle group, relaxing for 10 seconds after each muscle group.
- Close eyes tightly for five seconds.
- Clench jaw — not so tightly that your teeth hurt — for five seconds.
- Slowly rotate your head in a circle to the left for three rotations. Rotate to the right for three rotations.
- Pull your shoulders up toward your ears and hold for five seconds.
- Pull your chin to your chest for five seconds.
- Hold your arms out like you are pushing against a wall for five seconds. Then drop your arms.
- Squeeze your fists for five seconds.
- Tighten your stomach muscles for five seconds.
- Tighten your thighs for five seconds.
- Flex your calves for five seconds.
- Curl toes to tighten for five seconds.
- Finish your muscle relaxation exercises with 60 seconds of focusing on all muscle groups and being aware of a calm, relaxed feeling within them.
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Harvard Health Publishing. (2016, March 18). Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
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