Have you already tried breathing exercises? With intentional breathing techniques, you can take control of your health and wellbeing. From improving mental clarity to relieving stress and anxiety, discover how breathing practices can help with relaxation and give an overall boost to your mental state.
First I want to give you some information about your respiratory system and breathing so that you can better understand the high value of breathing exercises.
Why breathing is important
Your respiratory system which includes your airways, lungs, and blood vessels but also muscles has several important functions:
- delivering oxygen which is essential for energy generation for every single process in your body
- detoxification – excreting volatile waste, including carbon dioxide but also others (think of alcohol or garlic smell of breath)
- sound formation when airflow passes the vocal cords in the through and resonates in the chest
- sense of smell which is also possible only due to the airflow in the nose
- modulation of mental and emotional states
Respiratory system facts
How Breathing Works
For breathing, we mainly use the ribcage muscles and the diaphragm (the layer of muscles that separates the chest from the abdomen).
During inhalation, the lungs expand. This is an active process:
- the ribcage muscles contract to lift the ribs
- the diaphragm contracts to move downward
During exhalation the lungs contract due to a passive process:
- the ribcage muscles relax and the ribs fall together under the influence of gravity
- the diaphragm relaxes and pushes the lungs up under the pressure of the abdomen viscera
Your breathing changes depending on:
- the level of physical activity (sitting, running, or singing). At rest, you breathe around 12 to 20 times a minute
- quality of the air that you breathe (unventilated room air, fresh forest and see air or high-altitude air in the mountains)
- your mental state (asleep, sleepy, or fully awake)
- your emotional state (calm, positively excited, anxious, panicking)
Your breathing is controlled by the involuntary nervous system, called the autonomic nervous system:
- The parasympathetic system relaxes the body and slows your breathing rate (eat-and-digest).
- The sympathetic system creates arousal and increases your breathing rate (fight-freeze-or-flight).
Your breath rhythm always correlates with the heartbeat and blood pressure (cardiorespiratory coupling), as well as the activity of the autonomic nervous system. This link between the breath and heart rate is so tight that every single time you breathe in your heart accelerates and every time you breathe out your heart slows down.
Importance of the nasal breathing
It appears that there is an important difference between nasal and oral breathing. Nasal breathing synchronizes activities of various brain areas whereas oral breathing does not.
Nasal breathing supports the regulation of behavior, thought, and emotion as well as memory retrieval so much so that cognitive performance declines during oral breathing.
Whereas you cannot influence directly the autonomic nervous system, or change your blood pressure, you can change the rhythm of your breath. And when you do so the changed breathing alters instantaneously your heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity.
The effect of controlled breathing was recognized and used in yogic practices for centuries. There exist various breathing exercises both yogic as well as their modern adaptations. which alter one or several aspects of breathing:
Comparison of breathing exercises
A study conducted by Stanford University compared four different breathing techniques and their effectiveness:
Mindfulness meditation consisted of observing the natural breath flow without further interference.
During cyclic hyperventilation, the inhale was longer than exhale which was followed by a pause in breathing (apnea). This exercise resembles closely the yogic technique Bhastrika. Deep rhythmic inhales lead to hyperventilation and physical arousal.
Box breathing consisted of inhale, pause, and exhale followed by another pause. All four elements were equal in time. This exercise resembles square breathing and yogic Pranayama techniques in which the breath flow is interrupted by breaks between inhalation and exhalation.
The physiological sighing exercise consisted of a double inhale and a single prolonged exhale mimicking natural sighing.
This study, led by Prof. Huberman and Prof Spiegel showed that just 5 minutes of daily practice of any of the four techniques improve mood and reduce anxiety. This positive effect was increasing over the one-month time of regular practice. Whereby controlled breathing exercises gave better results than breath observation (mindfulness meditation) and the physiological sigh was the most effective among them.
Sigh is a natural breath that occurs when the activation state of your brain changes when you change your physical or emotional state. As Ramirez points out in his review article, sighs play a critical role in flexibility and adaptation to your day-to-day activities.
For example, you sigh when you lay down after sitting when you are bored, or after feeling nervous (babies sigh when calming down after crying), and when transitioning into sleep. A study by Leuven University showed that the sigh itself gives relief and reduces physiological tension (a sigh of relief).
Sighs also play an essential regulatory role in the states with low oxygen levels and lead to an arousal response. You may sigh while waking up before opening your eyes.
Because sighs reset psychological and physiological states, adults sigh frequently and babies sigh even every few minutes.
A sigh consists of augmented double inhalation and single exhalation followed by a pause in breathing (apnea). Augmented inhalation allows you to maximally expand your lungs and alveoli and ventilate your lungs.
Physiological Sighing Exercise
As explained above, you can use the physiological sighing exercise to quickly and significantly reduce anxiety and improve your moods.
And regular daily practice of just a few minutes a day will strengthen this positive effect.
Note, in addition to the daily practice, you can apply the exercise throughout the day when you need it. Remember that sighing is important to shift to any state.
So, you can calm down fast if you apply physiological sighing with prolonged exhalation. Or you can support the state of enhanced performance by sighing during any physical exercise in the rhythm of your movements.
Benefits of Breathing Exercises
Because breathing is directly linked to heart rate, blood pressure, and the autonomic nervous system, regular intentional breathing practices increase heart rate variability (HRV), activate the parasympathetic nervous system (eat-and-digest), and support healthy autonomic function.
HRV is an important heart health parameter showing how well the heart rate adjusts to different states of body activity, like going up when exercising and going down when resting. Both healthy heart rate variability and autonomic function are known to decrease mortality and boost longevity.
Breathing exercises for stress
Stress can be caused by different reasons like a high workload, extensive traveling, financial problems, or parenting. When the issues are not resolved and cause continuous psychological and physiological arousal, stress becomes chronic. Chronic stress contributes to anxiety and depression but also cardiovascular diseases.
Breathing practices can help you to elevate stress. They can become a part of your long-term strategy for reducing stress and supporting your physical and mental health.
Breathing exercises for anxiety and panic attacks
Anxiety disorders are the number one psychological issue affecting people around the globe and impacting the quality of their lives.
Multiple studies proved that breathwork is effective in reducing anxiety and preventing panic attacks. And the Stanford University study mentioned above showed that the physiological sighing practice is especially effective in alleviating anxiety.
When talking about breathwork for anxiety it is important to consider that the anxiety state has a typical breathing state. When you are anxious your breathing becomes shallow and fast. Such breathing causes hyperventilation, meaning high oxygen levels in the blood which only increases the state of psychological arousal.
Some researchers warn that any hyperventilation breathing techniques will only enhance the hyperventilation caused by anxiety and should be therefore avoided. Whereas other researchers defend the theory that voluntary hyperventilation techniques differ from involuntary hyperventilation caused by anxiety. Studies showed that voluntary hyperventilation techniques induce intense altered states of consciousness and increase self-awareness which is useful in combating anxiety disorders.
Therefore in an anxiety state or during a panic attack, it is important to counteract the shallow and fast breathing pattern:
- slowing down your breath
- prolonging the exhale
- breathing into abdomen
You may want to introduce a daily practice of physiological sighs or any other breathing technique to reduce and prevent anxiety and improve your emotional state.
Because anxiety is closely related to insomnia, alleviation of anxiety may also improve sleep quality.
Breathing exercises for weight loss
Deep abdominal breathing can raise oxygenation levels and this can accelerate your metabolic rate. This effect can positively affect weight loss.
Breathing techniques alleviate stress and anxiety, improve your moods, and increase self-awareness. And all of this reduces emotional eating and cravings, increases the sense of satiety, and naturally helps with weight management.
Conclusions: Breathing for Wellbeing
- Breathing techniques have been used in ancient spiritual practices for a very long time.
- Modern research shows that breathing affects your psychological and physiological state and intentional breathing exercises are capable of modulating it.
- In as little as 5 min a day, regular breathing practice will reduce stress, and anxiety, elevate your moods, raise resilience, and help with weight loss. And this effect increases with the time of regular practice.
- One of the most effective modern breathing exercises is physiological sighing.
If you recognize a need for deeper shifts in your beliefs and behaviors, hypnotherapy can be an excellent choice for that. Transformational hypnosis will help you to work on the root cause of the issues, be it fears and anxiety or weight gain, and achieve fast and long-lasting personal breakthroughs.
Book here your discovery call to discuss with me your challenges and goals:
FAQ about Breathing Exercises
How often should I do breathing exercises?
Breathing exercises give the highest benefit when you practice them daily
When to do breathing exercises?
Yogic breathing techniques are traditionally practiced in the morning.
Additionally, you can apply breathing techniques throughout the day as well as at the end of your day as often as you need for the purpose of resetting your body and mind – calming down or energizing your body and mind.
How long should breathing exercises be?
There exist breathing practices of various lengths. As research showed even a short 5-minutes practice is very effective.
How many breathing exercises should I do?
You will benefit from practicing at least two exercises or two versions of one technique – one for relaxation and one for energizing.
For example, the physiological sighing technique can be used for both purposes. It consists of a double inhale and a single exhale.
If you take a non-deep double inhale and then extend exhale the technique will have a calming effect. If you take a deep diaphragmatic, full lung capacity double inhale and then have an augmented exhale the exercise will give a hyperventilating and energizing effect.
How long should I practice breathing exercises?
The positive effect of breathing practice grows with the time of regular practice. You can improve and stabilize your mood, and effectively reduce stress and anxiety. Therefore it is highly beneficial to include breathing exercises in your daily self-care and stress-prevention routine.
- Balban MY, Neri E, Kogon MM, Weed L, Nouriani B, Jo B, Holl G, Zeitzer JM, Spiegel D, Huberman AD. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Rep Med. 2023 Jan 17;4(1):100895. doi: 10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895. Epub 2023 Jan 10. PMID: 36630953; PMCID: PMC9873947.
- Banushi B, Brendle M, Ragnhildstveit A, Murphy T, Moore C, Egberts J, Robison R. Breathwork Interventions for Adults with Clinically Diagnosed Anxiety Disorders: A Scoping Review. Brain Sci. 2023 Feb 2;13(2):256. doi: 10.3390/brainsci13020256. PMID: 36831799; PMCID: PMC9954474.
- Fincham GW, Strauss C, Montero-Marin J, Cavanagh K. Effect of breathwork on stress and mental health: A meta-analysis of randomised-controlled trials. Sci Rep. 2023 Jan 9;13(1):432. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-27247-y. PMID: 36624160; PMCID: PMC9828383.
- Jerath R, Edry JW, Barnes VA, Jerath V. Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Med Hypotheses. 2006;67(3):566-71. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.042. Epub 2006 Apr 18. PMID: 16624497.
- Ramirez JM. The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology. Prog Brain Res. 2014;209:91-129. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63274-6.00006-0. PMID: 24746045; PMCID: PMC4427060.
- Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O’Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017 Dec;13(4):298-309. doi: 10.1183/20734735.009817. PMID: 29209423; PMCID: PMC5709795.
- Vlemincx E, Van Diest I, Van den Bergh O. A sigh of relief or a sigh to relieve: The psychological and physiological relief effect of deep breaths. Physiol Behav. 2016 Oct 15;165:127-35. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.07.004. Epub 2016 Jul 9. PMID: 27404329.
- Yong MS, Lee YS, Lee HY. Effects of breathing exercises on resting metabolic rate and maximal oxygen uptake. J Phys Ther Sci. 2018 Sep;30(9):1173-1175. doi: 10.1589/jpts.30.1173. Epub 2018 Sep 4. PMID: 30214120; PMCID: PMC6127488.
- Zelano C, Jiang H, Zhou G, Arora N, Schuele S, Rosenow J, Gottfried JA. Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. J Neurosci. 2016 Dec 7;36(49):12448-12467. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016. PMID: 27927961; PMCID: PMC5148230.