There's a reason why pausing to take a deep breath is recommended during times of stress, anger, and frustration: Deep breathing signals your central nervous system to relax, rather than begin the fight or flight response to stress, and practicing it regularly is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Research from institutes such as Harvard, Northwestern University, the University of New Mexico, and the National Institute of Health, to name a few, have all concluded there are many health benefits of mindful breathing, including lowering blood pressure, decreasing inflammation, boosting your immune system, and decreasing the stress hormone called cortisol.
“When we are stressed, anxious, even exerting physical energy, many of us actually hold our breath," explains Laura McDonald, ACE-certified personal and group fitness trainer and yoga instructor. "By focusing on simple deep-breathing techniques we can experience immediate results.” For a basic deep-breathing exercise, McDonald suggests placing one hand on your belly and inhaling through your nose, allowing your belly to fill with air. Breathe out through your mouth or nose, feeling your belly lower as you release air slowly. “It takes a little practice, but you easily begin to connect to your breath—creating a rhythm, a connection with mind and body, and a sense of calm, peace, and relaxation,” she says. Try these four deep-breathing exercises to start relieving stress right now.
For Combating Anxiety: Slow Breathing
McDonald explains the stress-relieving powers of slow breathing as, “you’re ready for battle, your heart starts pounding, and your body and brain are gearing up for a fight. This is your sympathetic nervous system kicking in, flooding your body with hormones that cause you to tense up, feel anxious, even out of control.” She says by purposefully slowing your breathing rate and taking deeper breaths, you trigger your body’s relaxation response. To do it, inhale through your nose for three to five seconds. Hold your breath for a count of three to five seconds, and exhale completely through your nose or mouth for a count of three to five. It’s OK to hear your breath on the inhale and the exhale.
For Refocusing Your Attention: Box Breathing
Susan Loken, elite runner and marathon coach, recommends box breathing as a technique to increase relaxation any time. “I use box breathing for many things, but my favorite is when I need to get my running team to focus before doing running drills and track,” she says. “It works like magic; the team instantly quiets down. Not only are their running drills performed better but they also improve their performance on the track,” she adds. Start by exhaling all your air. Hold for four counts, then breathe in through your nose for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale smoothly through your nose for four counts. This, she says, is one round of box breathing. She recommends five to eight rounds if it’s comfortable.
For Unwinding Before Bed: Nighttime Breathing
McDonald recommends adding deep breathing to your bedtime routine to decompress from your day and to prepare for quality sleep. Inhale deeply to fill your chest, rib cage, and abdomen for a slow count of five. Hold the breath for a count of three then slowly release the exhale for a count of five. If random thoughts pop into your head or your environment is distracting, refocus on your breath. She says the ultimate goal is not to get preoccupied with doing deep breathing right, but to simply keep practicing. Practice makes perfect, after all. “The advice to just breathe may sound cliché, but it can change your life the minute you begin,” McDonald says.
For Relaxing with Imagery: Controlled Breathing Plus Visualizing
Simply put, visualization is the process of creating a detailed picture in your mind. The power of picturing relaxation in your mind prompts your brain to respond as if it’s really happening. When combined with controlled breathing, your body will get the relaxation-inducing message from your brain. This means your body now also responds as if it’s really happening, and you genuinely start to feel relaxed. “I focus and visualize myself inhaling strength through my nose and exhaling pain through my mouth,” says Loken, who uses this combination of techniques to decrease stress in her running competitions. Use any rhythm and any count that is most comfortable for you to reap the benefits.