Inhale, exhale...breathing to calm the mind


Do you often have a busy, chatty mind? Do you sometimes feel like you can't switch off or relax because you have so much to do? If so, did you know that breathing exercises can help to calm your mind and relax your body? With regular use, you may find that you are more able to switch off and unwind, and you might notice gradual improvements in your sleep, energy levels and digestion.


This blog describes four techniques that you can try anywhere, anytime. But first, let’s start by talking about stress and why we might want to consider doing some breathing exercises.

Good Stress

Some stress is good for us – it gets us through an exam, a job interview, a difficult conversation – this kind of stress is short-term and positive. It pumps the body full of adrenalin and helps us to think and move fast. Long ago, this type of stress helped us to run away from predators because it fuels our “flight or fight” reactions when we are presented with challenges. Our brains and muscles get all the attention and energy while other systems in our bodies, such as digestion, are dialled down for a while until the stress-causing situation has passed.

In an ideal world, once we have dealt with the problem, our bodies should return to a more relaxed state - the adrenalin dissipates and attention is given back to other bodily functions, such as digesting and absorbing nutrients from our food, cell repair and restorative sleep. In this more relaxed state, our bodies are able to recover from the load placed on them during the stress-inducing situation.

Bad Stress

Unfortunately, for most of us, our lives are very busy. We are constantly dealing with many different things that cause us worry and anxiety – work issues, money worries, health problems, relationship difficulties, or concern for loved ones. As a result, instead of short bursts of positive stress followed by longer periods of recovery, our bodies tend to be in a state of permanent stress. If we were asked, we might not necessarily say that we feel “stressed”, but our bodies may be spending too much time in a ‘switched on’ adrenalised state, in order to meet the demands of our busy days. We often try to juggle too many things every day, often not succeeding in doing everything we want to, leaving us with a feeling of permanent pressure to “get things done”. We might find that we are unable to switch off easily, or that we don’t sleep very well most nights, or that we suffer from tiredness, digestive problems or headaches. All of these can be signs that the body is struggling with the impact of chronic stress.

The Impact of Breathing Exercises

By consciously slowing, deepening and controlling our breathing, the exercises described here help to encourage our bodies and minds to switch from the “always on” state of stress to one of relaxation and recovery. Breathing exercises communicate directly with our autonomic nervous system, delivering the message that everything is OK – we can’t be running away from a predator if our breathing is slow and controlled. By taking control of our breathing, through slow calm breaths, we are telling the body that it is OK to relax.

How to use these Breathing Exercises

  • There are no hard and fast rules. The more often you practice the exercises, the greater the benefit. But even a few minutes, once or twice a week can help.

  • No technique is intrinsically better than the others - why not try them all and see which you prefer.

  • You don’t need to find a special place to do the exercises – you can do these anywhere, even at your desk at work.

  • Try to minimise the risk of interruptions for the time you plan to do your breathing exercises, such as putting your phone on silent.

  • Start small so that you don’t feel daunted by finding time to do the exercises – maybe start with three minutes a day.

Please note:

  • These exercises are aimed at helping you to take slow, deep breaths – remember that fast deep breathing can make you feel light-headed and cause hyperventilation. Your aim should be to slow your breathing down from its normal rate to one that feels comfortable to you.

  • If you are new to breathing exercises, you might feel a slight dizziness when you first start slowing your breathing down – don’t worry, this is normal. Simply return to your normal breathing and stay seated for a minute or two while the dizziness clears. As you practice, you will get used to the techniques and you can progressively slow your breathing.

  • All of the breathing techniques described here are very safe and can be very beneficial for respiratory conditions. However, if you are new to breathing exercises and have a long-term respiratory condition, such as asthma or COPD, we would recommend that you check with your GP before using any breathing techniques. If you have a short-term condition that is affecting your breathing, such as a cold or sinusitis, we would advise that you wait until your breathing is less congested. If you have any health concerns, please consult your GP.

Technique 1: Lengthening your exhale


When it comes to helping your body to feel calmer and more relaxed, the exhale of your breath is more important than the inhale – exhaling communicates directly with the part of the nervous system that initiates the ‘relax and recover’ state in our bodies. This very simple technique helps you to focus on longer exhalations.

Position: You can do this technique sitting, standing or lying, with eyes open or closed – whichever is most comfortable and relaxing for you.

Technique:

  • Start by taking a normal breath in through your nose and consciously exhale all of the air out of your lungs through your mouth – really feel as if you are pushing all the used air out of your body.

  • Breathe in through your nose for the count of 3 – try saying “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand” in your head so each count is about a second.

  • Then, breathe out through your nose for the count of 4 – again, saying “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand”.

  • Aim to count your breaths in this way for between two and five minutes.

Development:

  • You can try increasing the count as your body gets used to longer breaths – you could try breathing in for the count of 4 and out for 5. As you increase the count for your in-breath, keep your out-breath at least one count longer.

  • You may also want to try extending your exhale by two counts – so, for example, inhale for the count of 3 and exhale for the count of 5.

Technique 2: Belly Breathing



The diaphragm is the big muscle below your lungs whose job it is to help you breathe – it expands to aid a full breath in and contracts to expel air when you exhale. Diaphragm breathing helps us to take big deep refreshing breaths, bringing lots of beneficial oxygen into our bodies and expelling all the used air fully from our lungs. However, as a result of modern lifestyles, most of us tend use shallower chest breathing much of the time, which means we bring less oxygen into our bodies and don’t expel the used air completely with each breath.

This belly breathing technique is a great way of activating diaphragm breathing, which can have multiple benefits for the body[1], e.g.,

  • Encourages full oxygen exchange

  • Slows our heartbeat

  • Reduces stress and anxiety

  • Helps to stabilise and lower blood pressure

Position:

Either lie on your back, legs straight or knees bent, or sit upright in a comfortable chair with both feet on the ground. Eyes open or closed, whichever is most relaxing for you.

Technique:

  • Relax your shoulders and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly, just below your rib cage.

  • Breathe in, drawing the breath right down into your belly – the aim is to feel the hand on your tummy rise while the hand on your chest stays still.

  • Tighten your tummy muscles, purse your lips (as if you’re drinking through a straw) and breathe out slowly through your pursed lips.

  • Your aim is to take slow deep breaths into your belly, in through your nose and out through pursed lips – feeling the hand on your belly rise & fall with your breaths while the hand on your chest stays still. It can take some practice if your body is used to shallower chest breathing.

Development:

Try to practice daily so that this form of breathing becomes more automatic. Aim to practice this exercise three or four times a day for five to ten minutes each time.

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing

Technique 3: Square Breathing


Square breathing, also called box breathing, is a technique often used in mediation. It involves taking deep slow breaths and holding your breath in between inhaling and exhaling. Not only does it help to reduces stress and negative feelings[1], and aid concentration[2], but the technique is great for “resetting the breath” if you are feeling particularly agitated, stressed or anxious - it is a very calming exercise. It can also help with insomnia of you use the technique just before bedtime.

Position:

Sit upright in a comfortable chair with both feet on the ground and your hands in your lap, palms facing up. Focus on keeping a nice straight back. Eyes open or closed, whichever is most relaxing for you.

Technique:

  • Begin by expelling all the air from your lungs through your nose.

  • Take a breath in for a count of three – again, try saying “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand” so that you don’t rush the count.

  • Hold the breath in for a count of three.

  • Breath out steadily and fully for a count of three.

  • Wait for a count of three before inhaling.

  • Repeat this pattern four times - inhaling and exhaling to the count of three, with a pause of three in between each.

Note:If you are new to Square Breathing, you might feel a slight dizziness after a few rounds of breathing – don’t worry, this is normal. Simply return to your normal breathing and stay seated for a minute or two while the dizziness clears. As you practice, you will get used to the technique and you can begin to increase the number of rounds.

Development:

  • When you feel comfortable doing four rounds of breath using the count of three, you can increase the count to four: inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, and holding for a count of four.

  • You might then want to increase the number of rounds of breaths that you do each time.

  • You might also like to try variations of the counts, e.g., inhale for four; hold for three; exhale for five; hold for three – this brings together the Square Breathing with Lengthening the Exhale.


[1] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874/full

[2] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202/full


Technique 4: Alternate Nostril Breathing


This is a technique used in yoga and meditation. Used regularly, it can help to relax the body and calm the mind, reducing stress and anxiety, and improving concentration and mood[1]. Physically, alternate nostril breathing can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure and improve respiratory function[2] [3].

Note: If you have a long-term respiratory condition, such as asthma or COPD, we would recommend that you check with your GP before using Alternate Nostril Breathing. We also do not recommend this technique if your nose is congested, e.g., from a cold or hayfever.

Position:

Sit upright in a comfortable chair with both feet on the ground or on the floor cross-legged if that suits you. Focus on keeping a nice straight back. You can close your eyes if you want to, or simply soften your gaze.

Technique:

The steps that follow describe how to complete a cycle of alternate nostril breathing – in a nutshell, you take it in turns to inhale and exhale from only your right or left nostril. You will be using your right hand to alternatively close your left and right nostril with your thumb and ring finger, whilst your index and middle fingers press between your eyebrows.

  • Raise your right hand to your nose and rest your index and middle fingers in between your eyebrows. Use a gentle pressure so that you can feel the connection, but don’t press too hard.

  • Begin by taking a breath in, exhaling completely and closing your right nostril with your thumb.

  • Breathe in fully through your left nostril and then close your left nostril with ring finger.

  • Open your right nostril and exhale through this side.

  • Inhale through your right nostril and then close it with your thumb.

  • Open your left nostril and exhale through this side.

  • Inhale through your left nostril and then close it with your finger.



This completes a cycle – the next cycle would be:

  • Exhale & inhale through right nostril

  • Exhale & inhale through left nostril.


Continue with this cycle for up to 5 minutes, finishing with an exhale on the left side.


When you first start this technique, you may only want to do it for a couple of minutes. You can gradually lengthen the time that you do it or try it multiple times a day.







[1] https://www.ptsduk.org/yogic-breathing-to-reduce-ptsd-anxiety/ [2] Singh S, Gaurav V, Parkash V (2010). Effects of a 6-week nadi-shodhana pranayama training on cardio-pulmonary parameters. Journal of Physical Education and Sport Management 2(4):44-7. [3] Hakked C, Ragavendrasamy Balakrishnan R & Krishnamurthy M (2017). Yogic breathing practices improve lung functions of competitive young swimmers. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine 8: 99-104


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