Breathing is the critical mechanism for the maintenance of human life. It confers oxygen into the bloodstream, pumping the body with the essential molecules it needs for metabolic processes, and ridding it of unneeded waste in the form of carbon dioxide.
A growing body of evidence points to the idea that not all breathing is equal; the deeper you breathe, the healthier and better off you are. As our scientific understanding of the power of deep-breathing becomes more sophisticated, we can now explain effects that many civilisations have for millennia implicitly known.
Hailed as a wonder-solution for a bevy of different ailments, the practice of deep breathing is an evidence-based tool to help ease common psychological issues, especially anxiety and stress.
This has meaningful implications for mental health, offering simple pathways to relieve your own symptoms, in your own time.
Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has led trail-blazing research into the relationship between trauma and the body, says in his book The Body Keeps the Score: “The more you stay focused on your breathing, the more you will benefit, particularly if you pay attention until the very end of the out breath and then wait a moment before you inhale again.
The science of deep breathing
There is a growing body of neuroscientific literature to support the idea that just as emotions can impact your body, your body can impact your emotions. The simplest behaviours, like smiling, can kick off equivalent emotional responses in the brain – deep breathing is a key example of this. Deep – or diaphragmatic – breathing involves the slow, long, full inhale-exhale pattern often found in various calming exercises, like mindfulness, yoga or tai chi. It is distinguished from ‘belly breathing’ by the contraction of the diaphragm.
Deep breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve, a long nerve that links the brain with the heart, lungs and digestive tract. The vagus nerve is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that calms your body down, bringing it back to its resting state. This means that stimulation of the vagus nerve can kick your parasympathetic nervous system into gear, lowering your heart rate and inducing feelings of calm.
Deep breathing, the body and mental health – how does it all fit together?
In the short term, this can alleviate the symptoms of a panic attack, stress or anxiety, helping to ground and relax you.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve has also been demonstrated, when practised long-term, to improve memory consolidation and recognition, as well as contributing to stress reduction and anti-inflammation.
This is because repeated vagus nerve stimulation can shift the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems (the system that manages your body during stress), making the parasympathetic more dominant. And when the parasympathetic system is more dominant, our body systems are overridden with calm, relaxed and restoring energy.
This can help to alleviate the symptoms of common mental health issues like depression, anxiety, anger, and brain fog.
Some techniques for deep breathing
There are a number of simple deep-breathing techniques you can practice at home. None of them have to take a long time, or detract from an otherwise busy day – which makes them great for integrating self-soothing into your daily life.
Square (or ‘box’) breathing is a common technique to ground breathing practices in easy, measurable counts. The pattern is as follows:
- Breathe in for a count of 4
- Hold the top of your breath for a count of 4
- Gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4
- At the bottom of your breath, pause and hold for a count of 4.
It’s known as square breathing because it’s often represented like this:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi shodhana pranayama (Sanskrit) – alternate nostril breathing – is a breathing practice in yoga designed to energise and relax. While yoga involves more than physical practice – with teachings and precepts drawn from an ancient tradition – this particular breathing style can be useful on its own for its calming properties.
Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to lower heart rate and stress levels, contributing to emotional and physical wellbeing.
A full description and tutorial can be found here, but below are the steps in short.
- Begin seated in a comfortable position. Relax and close your eyes. Relax your jaw and your tongue.
- Place your left hand on your left knee, and lift your right hand up toward your nose.
- Exhale completely, and use your right thumb to close your right nostril.
- Inhale through the left nostril, then close the left nostril with your fingers.
- Open the right nostril, and exhale through this side.
- Inhale through the right nostril, then close it.
- Open the left nostril, and exhale through that side.
- Continue for as long as needed.
Alternate nostril breathing can be a great way to deepen your breaths and relax body and mind before meditation or mindfulness, or it can be a simple mindful technique to practice on its own.
4-7-8 breathing is a simple, counted breathing technique often used to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. While no formal studies have examined 4-7-8 breathing, there is strong anecdotal evidence to support its use.
- Empty your lungs.
- Breathe in through the nose for four seconds.
- Hold the breath for seven seconds.
- Exhale through the mouth for eight seconds.
- Repeat the cycle roughly four times.
Resources for deep breathing
Calm – which also has a mindfulness app – has a webpage that guides you through simple deep-breathing: https://www.calm.com/breathe.
Greater Good in Action offers the following breathing practice, which can also be found here.
Time required: 15 minutes
How to do it:
- 1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position, seated or lying down. Rest your hands and mouth; relax your muscles.
- 2. Notice your body, become aware of its sensations, and continue to breath fully, and slowly.
- 3. Focus on your breath, feel it flow naturally.
- 4. If your mind wonders, don’t worry – just calmly, and gently, nudge your attention back to the breath.
- 5. Stay here for five to seven minutes, noticing your breath.
- 6. After a few minutes, begin to notice your body again, as you slowly bring your attention back to normal, daily life.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.