In the past, when you've felt overwhelmed by your to-do list or a looming deadline, or your anxiety was shooting through the roof, you probably received this advice: "Take a deep breath."
But why do deep breathing techniques calm and soothe our frazzled nerves?
How Deep Breathing Relieves Stress
When you experience a stressful situation, your body thinks that it's under attack and relies on its primal instincts to survive. Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, your breath races, and adrenaline pumps through your system. It's your body's fight-or-flight response (or sympathetic nervous system) in action — the same response you'd have if you were being chased by a bear. So even if you aren't in physical danger, the body reacts in the same way.
Deep breathing techniques bust stress by counteracting this response. It summons your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your rest-and-digest system, and helps stimulate relaxation to return everything to equilibrium. You take in more oxygen, your heart rate slows, and your mind starts to slow down.
Deep breathing can also lower blood pressure and may help ease painful symptoms associated with headaches and migraines. You may even start to feel your muscle unclench.
It's an Easier Kind of Meditation
Deep breathing and other breathing techniques are a cornerstone of meditation practice, especially mindfulness-based practices. And like meditation, breathing exercises evokes a similar deep and profound relaxation in the body.
Focusing on the breath is a simple way to stay connected to and centered on the present. In a way, deep breathing can serve as an internal metronome and a way to quiet your mind throughout the day, much like a more formal meditation practice. It's something that you do every day, and you can take deep breaths wherever you may experience stress, whether it's at home, work, or on the go.
The Right Way to Breathe Deeply
While inhaling and exhaling sounds pretty self-explanatory, most of us don't naturally take deep belly breaths. Instead, we tend to take shallow breaths that don't allow our lungs to fully fill with air, or our bellies to rise and fall.
When you're ready to practice deep breathing techniques, sit in a quiet and comfortable seat. Take a slow deep breath in through your nose. Let your rib cage expand and belly rise as your lungs fill with air. Exhale slowly, and feel your belly and chest fall. You can place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest to feel the accordionlike movement of your torso. Keep taking full, deep breaths until you start to feel a sense of calm.
Another simple technique is inhaling through your nose while you count to three and exhaling through your mouth while you count to three. Repeat this for several rounds. If you're having trouble, don't get frustrated. It can take a little practice for your body to relearn and master this breathing technique.
So, when you're facing an anxiety-inducing situation, remember: breathe in, breathe out. Whether you practice deep breathing for a few minutes or more, your body will naturally start to calm down and relax.