"When the breath is unsteady, all is unsteady; when the breath is still; all is still. Control the breath carefully. Inhalation gives strength and a controlled body; retention gives steadiness of mind and longevity; exhalation purifies body and spirit."
– Goraksha Shataka (13th century)
A thermostat controls the temperature in a room within a comfortable range. If a room is too hot or too cold, it's hard to function optimally. Stress can act like a blazing hot summer day or chilly winter night, pushing our brains out of optimal range accordingly. Breathing is the thermostat that brings our brain back to balance when stressed.
The impact of breathing has been a focus of conversation - both social and scientific - for centuries. Recent research suggests that ancient deep breathing and meditative strategies are potentially connected to a variety of benefits in our body, especially related to stress and anxiety.
As you embark on the journey to take back control of the stress in your body, let’s explore how deep breathing can help.
Benefits of Deep Breathing
- Decreased cortisol levels — cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone
- Lower heart rate and blood pressure
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety and PTSD
- Increased core strength and stability
Have you ever noticed that during a tense moment your shoulders tighten and lift toward your neck and you breathe at a rapid pace? This is a common response to heightened stress. Short, shallow breaths lead to lower oxygenation of the brain which can in turn make you feel more anxious and stressed. This only serves to exacerbate the problem.
How To Deep Breathe Properly
When practicing deep breathing, it’s key to engage in diaphragmatic breathing, also referred to as belly breathing, to maximize the impact of your breath.
Let's break down a simple “box breath” step-by-step to illustrate what this looks like:
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. If seated, sit with your feet flat on the floor, with a straight back and shoulders rolled back in a natural position
- Place one hand on your stomach, directly above your belly button, and the other on your chest
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of four. As you breathe, you should feel your stomach pushing out against your hand
- After completing the inhale, hold for a count of four
- Breathe out through your mouth for a count of four, pursing your lips as you do so. You should feel your stomach deflating against your hand
- At the bottom of the exhale, hold for a count of four
- Repeat this breathing technique for a total of 5-10 minutes
As you practice deep breathing, you may notice your brain’s thermostat resetting to your optimal range, resulting in:
- Headache relief
- Decreased anxiety
- Muscle relaxation
In a few simple steps, deep breathing can reset the thermostat in your brain. It is a powerful - and very accessible - recalibration tool. You can practice deep breathing anywhere, anytime.
Two Practices to Make Deep Breathing Work for You
If you are new to deep breathing, it may seem a bit overwhelming at first. Here are two simple ways to make breathing work for you:
1. Box Breathing
Odds are slim that you are often called on to perform hostage rescues. Well, Navy SEALs are, and they incorporate square breathing - also known as box breathing - in their training as a method to remain calm in moments of stress. If it works for a Navy SEAL, it can work for you! Follow the visual below for square breathing - as you follow along, visualize a square in your head and count as you go. This is the same method we introduced in our step-by-step guide.
For increased sensory input, tape a post-it on a surface and trace along the edges of the post-it as you engage in this breathing exercise. This can decrease distraction as you engage multiple senses in the activity.
2. Create a Rootine
"What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while." - Gretchen Rubin
Deep breathing requires practice, just like any other skill. To make the most of it, it’s important to take time to use a breathing strategy every day, not only during those moments of heightened stress. This allows your body to remain emotionally regulated on a daily basis and guarantees you know exactly what to do when those moments of fight or flight come up.
Here are some ideas to make this happen:
- Set a breathing reminder on your phone for the same time each day
- Use a breathing app on your phone, we like the Apple Watch’s “Mindfulness” function the app Othership
- Habit stack: Every time you are at a red light, get in the habit of taking 5 deep breaths. By pairing this new habit with regular activity in your daily life, you are more likely to be successful
- Incorporate your breathing practice 2-3 times per day in the same location so that your body associates your physical setting with a sense of calm.
As you work to take back control over stress, be empowered to use breathing as a thermostat to regulate your nervous system and brain.
You hold the tools to maintain a calm body and mind.
- Levinson DB, Stoll EL, Kindy SD, Merry HL and Davidson RJ (2014) A mind you can count on: validating breath counting as a behavioral measure of mindfulness. Front. Psychol. 5:1202. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01202
- Ma X, Yue Z-Q, Gong Z-Q, Zhang H, Duan N-Y, Shi Y-T, Wei G-X and Li Y-F (2017) The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front. Psychol. 8:874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
- Medical News Today (2022) What is Box Breathing. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805
- Cleveland Clinic (2022) How Box Breathing Can Help You Destress. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/box-breathing-benefits/
- St. Joseph’s Health (2021) Deep Breathing Exercises for Anxiety. https://stjoseph.stlukeshealth.org/healthy-resources/blogs/deep-breathing-exercises-for-anxiety-tips-and-tricks
- American Physiological Association (2021) Take a Deep Breath. https://www.physiology.org/publications/news/the-physiologist-magazine/2021/january/take-a-deep-breath?SSO=Y