Whether you're stressed, overwhelmed or anxious, "take a deep breath" is common advice — for good reason. It turns out there are slew of biochemical benefits of taking time out to breathe deeply.
While the average person takes between 17,000 and 24,000 breaths per day, most of us never notice a single inhale or exhale. We just do it. "And yet, if we stop and pay attention to our breath for a few moments, we might head off anxiety and stress," says Erin Covert, a licensed massage therapist at Henry Ford Health.
Deep Breathing Basics
Breathing exercises don't require special equipment or even a timer. To reap the calming benefits of deep breathing, all you need to do is give yourself permission to take "breathing breaks" periodically during the day.
Close or soften your eyes and notice your breath. Is it short and ragged? Long and deep? No matter where you are in your approach to breathing, taking time to practice a few techniques can help you remain grounded and present. A few of Covert's favorites:
- Diaphragmatic breathing: According to Covert, diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most powerful techniques in our toolbox. Also called "belly breathing," diaphragmatic breathing boosts feel-good hormones and helps calm the nervous system.
How to do it: Place one hand low on your belly and one hand on your chest and visualize filling your lungs from the bottom to the top, like you're inflating a balloon. Slowly inhale through your nose and feel your belly, ribs and chest expanding and pressing into your hands. As you exhale through your nose, reverse the process as if you’re deflating the balloon and feel the muscles of your chest, ribs and lower belly gently contract.
Do it when…you're on edge. Use belly breathing to calm nervous jitters or when you have trouble falling asleep. You can do this type of breathing anytime, anywhere. The only caveat: You should not do diaphragmatic breathing while operating a moving vehicle because this type of breathing can make you drowsy.
- Pursed-lip breathing: As the name suggests, pursed-lip breathing requires exhaling through pursed lips.
How to do it: Relax your neck and shoulders, keep your mouth closed and inhale slowly through your nose. Exhale slowly through pursed lips as if blowing out a candle.
Do it when…you want to relieve anxiety and quiet your mind.
- Lion's breath: Lion’s breath is an energizing yoga breathing technique that helps relieve tension, awaken tired eyes and release a tight jaw.
How to do it: Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Inhale deeply through your nose, open your eyes wide, looking up to the space between your eyebrows, and open your mouth wide while sticking your tongue out as far as you can. Exhale through your mouth while making an extended “roaring” sound.
Do it when…you're feeling tired or unproductive — or after you've been sitting at your desk for an extended time.
Another simple breathing exercise to help you relax when you're stressed out is the 4-7-8 technique, where you inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and then exhale for a count of eight.
Take A Breath
When you have a busy life and a jam-packed schedule, taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can pull you into the present moment.
“Practicing breathwork can move you into a state of meditation,” says Covert. "When you focus on your breathing, you root yourself in the present moment. You're not thinking about the past or the future."
The key is assessing what you need in the situation and responding with breath work that can help you achieve your goals. Hit the afternoon slump? Try lion's breath. Stressed about making a deadline? Pause for some diaphragmatic breathing.
While there's solid evidence to support the benefits of breathing exercises, it's equally important to take note of how you feel after you’ve practiced one of the breathing techniques. "You're more likely to do these techniques when you experience the benefits in your body," Covert says.
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Erin Covert, LMT, is a board-certified, licensed massage therapist and meditation instructor at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine.