When you’re stressed, hearing someone tell you to “just take a deep breath” can feel incredibly frustrating in the moment. But the age-old advice is a cliche because deep breathing actually does help people better manage feelings of stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. And there’s lots of science to prove it.
On a fundamental biological level, breathing keeps us alive by bringing oxygen into the body (which we need to make energy) and expelling carbon dioxide (a by-product of energy production). But decades of research has shown that the act of breathing has other powerful effects on the body and mind. Deep breathing that engages your diaphragm, aka the large muscle that controls breathing, can reduce anxiety and stress, slow your heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and strengthen the heart. Deep breathing practice has also been used to strengthen lungs and increase lung capacity for people with chronic conditions like asthma and COPD.
For these reasons, deep breathing is also a staple of meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness-focused practices. By actively slowing your breath patterns, you automatically focus on the present moment and improve your connection with your body.
What does deep breathing look like?
Fun fact: You might not be breathing correctly. Many people breathe too shallowly. That is, they only allow the air to flow into the chest cavity. This can be caused by bad posture, stress, or underlying lung conditions that make breathing difficult.
However, the mechanism that drives your breath is actually in your belly. When your diaphragm contracts, it pulls down on your lungs and expands your stomach to fill your lungs with air. True deep breathing starts in your nose and then moves to and engages your stomach. This maximizes how much air (and thus oxygen) you’re bringing into your body.
Deep breathing exercises can help you engage and strengthen your diaphragm so that you’re getting more air in with every breath you take. Those exercises, as mentioned earlier, can also have huge benefits for your stress levels.
4 Deep Breathing Exercises for Relaxation
Do you want to reduce stress, counteract nervousness, concentrate better or fall asleep faster? Then these exercises can help you. Build them into everyday life consistently to better benefit from the calming effects.
1. Belly breathing
This is one of the simplest breathing exercises, and is often used to help people with chronic lung conditions strengthen their diaphragms to make breathing easier. It can also help slow your heart rate, which relaxes the body.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lie on your back on a flat surface, with your knees bent and head supported.
- Put one hand on your chest and one slightly below your ribs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach moving out against your hand.
- Exhale through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles and letting them fall inward. The hand on your upper chest should remain still.
- Repeat for several breaths.
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2. 4-7-8 breathing
If you’re ready to take it to the next level, this tried-and-true deep breathing exercise has been shown to help lower cortisol levels, slow heart rate, and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety. (It can also help you fall asleep.)
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. The tip of your tongue should touch the back of your top teeth and the roof of your mouth.
- Take a deep breath through your nose for four counts.
- Hold that breath for seven counts, then exhale slowly for eight counts.
- Repeat for several breaths.
3. Nadi shodhana pranayama (aka alternate nostril breathing)
This slow breathing technique has been a staple of yoga practices for centuries. The idea of nadi shodhana is to settle your mind and body by breathing through different nostrils. Research has linked this practice and other forms of slow yogic breathing to reduce heart rate and blood pressure and improve perceived stress. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit as upright as you can in a comfortable, cross-legged position on the floor (or support yourself on a mat or towel.)
- Put your left hand in your lap and your right hand in front of your face. Rest your pointer and middle fingers between your eyebrows, and close your right nostril with your right thumb.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- Close your left nostril and pause, holding your breath for a few seconds.
- Keep your left nostril closed and open your right nostril. Exhale slowly out the right nostril.
- Repeat, except this time keep your right nostril closed and inhale and exhale through your right nostril, pausing after your inhale and exhale.
4. Sama vritti pranayama (aka box breathing)
This is another type of yogic breathing, reportedly employed by U.S. Navy SEALs. It involves four steps of equal duration, and can help lower stress and soothe anxiety. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit upright in a comfortable position. Breathe out slowly to release all the air in your lungs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for four counts.
- Exhale for another four counts.
- Pause after you exhale for four counts.
- Repeat for a few more rounds.
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