Breathing is something we do constantly, usually without a second thought. But have you ever stopped to wonder whether you’re doing it right? It may seem like a strange question, but actually the way we breathe has a real effect on our emotional and mental well-being. In our modern, fast-paced way of life, many of us live our lives stuck in a high pressure “fight or flight” mode that not only keeps us physically tense, but also mentally stressed. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our stress responses, helping us to deal with crises by raising our blood pressure, heart rate, adrenaline levels and all the other physical reactions you’d need to deal with a dangerous or stressful situation. But we aren’t meant to live in that state permanently, and doing so eventually starts to take a toll on your physical and mental health.
Breathing exercises can also help to clear the airways, strengthen the respiratory system and deal with conditions like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), as well as helping to take control of our stress responses. Slowing down and taking the time to breathe mindfully can help reduce anxiety, lower stress and improve sleep. This happens by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and relaxation. People who regularly practice breath control techniques learn to manage these conflicting forces in the body, becoming better able deal with the challenges life throws at us in a balanced way. There are many different breathing techniques available these days, so take the time to try a few styles before deciding which one suits you best:
1. Square Breathing
This is a simple, yet effective method for slowing down and taking the time to breathe deeply. Also known as “box breathing” or “4×4 breathing,” this technique involves simply counting to four every time you inhale, pause and exhale. To try square breathing, try these four stages:
- Inhale, count 1…2…3…4…
- Hold the breath, count 1…2…3…4…
- Exhale, count 1…2…3…4…
- Hold, count 1…2…3…4…
This method is often represented with a square or box shape, providing a good visual cue that is particularly useful while working with kids who may need help relaxing or calming down. Used by soldiers, emergency personnel athletes, it’s also known as “combat tactical breathing” and has been recommended by the US Navy for managing stress in high pressure situations.
2. 7-11 Breathing
Another technique that focuses your breath with counting, involves inhaling for a count of 7, then exhaling for a count of 11. Counting to higher numbers like this serves to slow down your breathing. This allows you to take deeper breathes and gives your parasympathetic nervous system a chance to activate, exerting a calming influence. For some, it may be difficult to continue inhaling and exhaling for the extended time it takes to count all the way up to 7 and 11, so beginners may want to try with a lower count, such as 3-6 or 5-9 breathing. After becoming comfortable with the lower times, you can gradually work up to a count of 7-11. According to the Human Givens Institute, breathing techniques with longer out-breaths are more effective than those with evenly timed techniques; it is our exhalations that stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is why 7-11 breathing places such importance of a long out-breath count. Ideally, 7-11 breathing should be done in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing.
3. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Most people think about breathing as an upper-body activity, taking air into the chest by using the neck and shoulder muscles – but you might be surprised to hear than most people are actually breathing wrong! Breathing into the chest is inefficient and a sign of stress – all mammals practice diaphragmatic breathing when relaxed, as it stimulates the vagus nerve, which signals a calming message to the brain. Also known as “abdominal” or “belly” breathing, this technique uses the diaphragm muscle to draw oxygen down into the lower part of the lungs, allowing you to utilize your full lung capacity, making this a popular method for singers and performers. To try diaphragmatic breathing, follow these steps:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, expanding your belly (NOT your chest) as oxygen enters your body.
- Breathe out through your mouth. Deflate your belly, bringing your belly button towards your spine so that the air is gently pushed back up out of your lungs, as you exhale.
It may help you to do this lying down, with one hand placed at the base of your throat and your other hand resting on your belly. As you breathe, you should be able to feel the hand on your belly rise and fall, while the hand on your chest should not move. If it’s not practical to lie down, try this technique in a seated position, again with one hand on your stomach.
4. Roll Breathing
A variation of belly breathing, try this when you have mastered the use of your diaphragm for breathing. Roll breathing works to fill your lungs completely, from top to bottom:
- Start by practicing belly breathing for around 10 breaths. It may help to place one hand on your chest and one on your belly, as with diaphragmatic breathing.
- For your next breath, inhale into the lower lungs, filling the abdomen as you would when belly breathing. When your belly is full of air, keep breathing air into your chest area, or upper lungs. You should feel as if you are filling your upper chest with air; and the hand placed on your chest should rise. At this stage, both your belly and chest should be full of oxygen.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, first deflating your abdomen and then your chest.
- Repeat. The motion of air traveling through your belly and chest should cause a rising and falling motion like rolling waves.
5. Lazy 8 Breathing
“Lazy 8” breathing is based on a sideways 8 shape – it is lying down because it’s lazy, resembling a shape like the infinity symbol. Visualize yourself tracing the shape; inhale while tracing the left hand loop of the 8, and exhale while tracing the right hand loop. To strengthen the technique hold out your arm and physically trace a sideways 8 shape in the air, breathing in time with the movement of your arm. You will be able to adjust the speed of the technique to suit you, but it is most effective when done at a slow pace. This method is another good option for teaching children about breath control, as it an engaging visual and kinesthetic element.
6. 4-7-8 Breathing
This technique is based on ancient yogic practices, with a modern twist pioneered by Harvard trained MD Andrew Weil. According to Weil, this method has the power to put you in an altered state of consciousness and can act as a natural tranquilizer on the nervous system. As such, this is another technique that focuses on a shorter inhalation and a longer exhalation to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. To try 4-7-8 breathing, follow these steps:
- Place the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge – the ridge on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth. Try to keep your tongue is the position throughout the whole exercise, but try to keep it relaxed.
- Inhale for a count of 4, breathing in through your nose.
- Hold the breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale for a count of 8, breathing out through your mouth to create a “whooshing” sound; it may help to purse your lips while breathing out.
- Do this 4 times (Once you have been practicing this method for several months, you can try repeating the pattern 8 times in one sitting).
If you find it difficult to hold your breath for the count of 7, you can reduce the total length of time taken to do the technique, as long as you keep that ration at 4:7:8 for each component. For best results, Dr. Weil recommends practicing this at least twice a day, as well as any time that you feel stressed, angry or otherwise negative. It’s commonly used to help people get to sleep, as it works to reduce tension in the body.
7. Pursed Lip Breathing
If you find yourself prone to breathlessness, you may want to try pursed lips breathing. It’s commonly used by people who suffer from respiratory illnesses or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or any other condition that can cause breathlessness. Endorsed by the American Lung Association, the Lung Institute and the COPD Foundation, pursed lip breathing is a simple and effective way to get back in control of your breath. To perform pursed lip breathing:
- Inhale through your nose for around 2 seconds, keeping your mouth closed.
- Pucker your lips as if you intend to kiss someone on the cheek, or blow out a candle.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, keeping your lips pursed – try to spend longer breathing out than you did breathing in.
You don’t have to time your breaths precisely, although you may find it useful to slowly count as you breathe.
8. Breath Counting
One of the simplest breathing techniques out there, breath counting has long been used by Zen Buddhists as a meditation aid. Breath counting serves to focus not only the breath, but also the mind, calming you both physically and mentally.
- First, inhale through your nose.
- Then exhale, counting slowly to five.
- When you get to five, return to the beginning and start with your next inhale, again counting to five when you breathe out.
The more practiced you become at controlling your breath, the longer you can draw them out, and you may choose to start counting up to 10 as you exhale. The exact number is not important, as long as your mind is focused on the technique and keeping a regular, steady count.
9. Mindful Breathing
This is a less structured exercise than some, as it focuses less on counting the breath, and more on your overall physical and mental sensation in the moment. Start by sitting comfortably, preferably with a straight back and your eyes closed. Focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling steadily and slowly, deep into the diaphragm; you should start to feel your belly rise and fall, as with the diaphragmatic breathing technique. Thought will come into your head; observe them and let them float away, bringing your focus back to keeping the breath steady. You will also start to notice sensations in your body, emotions and sounds or other stimuli in your surroundings. Again, simply observe these, before bringing your attention back to your breathing. Don’t worry if you get distracted or you realize that your mind is wandering, simply bring your focus gently back to the breath. Try to keep this up for a minimum of 5 minutes daily, gradually building up to a longer practice. This method is a common meditation aid, and there is a wide range of guided meditation recordings available to help you through the process of mindful breathing.
When it comes to improving your health and mental well-being, it doesn’t get much simpler than taking control of your breathing. Breath is the foundation of life, and the way we use it has profound impact on us every day. Whether you are looking to improve a respiratory illness, sleep better or relieve anxiety, breath control is a simple yet effective way of improving your life in a fundamental way.