Because your breath directly controls your nervous system, it’s the remote control to instantly calm your brain and body. Learning to control and calm your breathing has many physical, mental, and life benefits – both instantly and in the long run. You take roughly 20,000 breaths a day, which means you have a lot of chances to help yourself. Here are six ways to do that.
Your Breath Controls Your Nervous System
It’s been well-known for some time that slowing your breath can have a calming effect on emotions and increasing your rate of breath makes you anxious, but science didn’t know exactly why. Fairly recently, research determined that your breath directly calms your brain through the “breathing pacemaker.”
In a mouse study, the group of neurons at the base of the rodents’ brain stems was found to directly connect to the arousal center in the brain. When the scientists “silenced” certain neurons in the mice’s breathing pacemakers giving them “at-rest’ breath patterns, they remained calm even in situations that would normally stress them out. Turns out, these neurons have a direct line to the brain’s arousal center and can either tell the brain there’s an emergency or keep it calm. When you intentionally slow your respiration down, the pacemaker does not send a panic signal. The breathing pacemaker has also been identified and studied in humans.
You’re Probably Doing It Wrong (seriously!)
If you want to observe the correct way to breath, watch a newborn. They naturally practice deep breathing from the diaphragm. You’ll see their belly expand and chest rise as they inhale air through their nose into the lungs, and when they exhale, their belly contracts. For many people, this kind of respiration is no longer instinctive. Life teaches us how to breathe incorrectly. Many of us have become shallow mouth breathers. Our breathing patterns may have shifted due to stress and anxiety. Also, the desire to have a flat stomach encourages us to hold our breath and suck in our stomachs — which is the opposite of what we should be doing. We have to intentionally re-learn how to breathe optimally.
When you take shallow breaths, your body remains in a cyclical state of stress. Stress causes shallow breathing and shallow breathing causing stress. Breathing incorrectly can activate the sympathetic nervous system and the stress response. Shallow breathing can lock your body and mind in a habitual state of stress.
Deep breathing goes by many names. You may have heard it called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully inflates your lungs, and your lower belly extends. When you breathe deeply and consciously, you can tap one of your body’s strongest self-healing mechanisms. With the speed and depth of your breath, you are telling your body your psychological state which, in turn, directs your physical state. Your breathing affects many bodily functions from your blood pressure to the immune system.
Mouth Versus Nasal Breathing: What’s the Difference?
As you inhale, you draw in oxygen (O2). As you exhale, you push out carbon dioxide (CO2). Your body requires a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This means that we can also run into problems when our carbon dioxide levels are too low. Proper breathing techniques help you maintain a healthy balance.
The negative effects of mouth breathing are:
- When you breathe through your mouth, you will experience less tissue oxygenation. Inhaling through your nose allows you to absorb more oxygen with less physical exertion.
- Children who breathe through their mouths may develop an altered facial structure that causes their face to be elongated, which contributes to impaired respiration patterns.
- When you breathe through your mouth, you are more likely to hyperventilate or experience allergens. It can also cause you to expel too much carbon dioxide from your body, which can produce fluctuations in your blood’s pH level and limit the hemoglobin from releasing oxygen into cells. This is called the Bohr effect, which can lead to hypoxia or low blood oxygen levels that restrict blood flow to vital organs.
This means that even while exercising it is better to breathe through your nose than your mouth. One way to work on this is to back off the intensity of exercise and train breathing only through your nose. This will push your body to become more efficient and tolerant holding in carbon dioxide. Additionally, breathing through the nose allows you access to a small portion of nitric oxide that you carry in your lungs. Nitric oxide helps dilate our lungs and blood vessels while providing antibacterial properties to clear out germs and bacteria.
Six Controlled Breathing Techniques to Try
The 365 Method
Best for: Chronic stress, anxiety, phobias, pain management, nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and trauma therapy.
The 365 method utilizes the scientifically proven technique of cardiac coherence. Cardiac coherence uses biofeedback to coordinate your breath and heart rate. Slow, steady diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system’s relaxation response. By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can calm your body. The parasympathetic nervous system also slows and stabilizes the heartbeat, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes muscles. The brain also relaxes and increases its sense of peacefulness, allowing for positive psychological effects.
This method is optimally practiced every day at least three times per day. Each session requires five minutes. The idea is to breathe at a constant rhythm of six cycles per minute for five minutes. The rhythm consists of five seconds inhaling and five seconds exhaling. Some versions ask breathers to spend more time on exhaling and inhaling, for instance inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six, to exert a quieting effect on the heart rate. Keep in mind that long inhales with short exhales will speed up your heart rate; whereas, shorter inhales and longer exhales will slow the heart rate and calm the body.
The regularity of this breathing exercise not only causes immediate relief for those prone to stress or anxiety, but the consistent daily approach also makes these individuals less vulnerable to stress in the long run.
The 4-7-8 Exercise
Best for: Relaxation and improved sleep, managing cravings, and reducing anger responses.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise involves you exhaling twice for each time that you inhale. A longer exhalation than inhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and allows the body to relax. Since this practice calms the nervous system, it’s perfect to use right before bed. However, many people advocate using the technique to de-stress throughout the day. As you start out, begin with a four-breath cycle. You can increase to an eight-breath cycle as needed after about a month of frequent practice.
- Sit up straight and relax the tip of your tongue against the back of the front teeth.
- Using only the nose, breath in for four counts.
- Hold the breath for seven counts.
- Exhale through the mouth for eight counts, making a whooshing sound through the mouth as you breathe out.
- Repeat this breathing cycle a total of four times.
Ayurvedic and Pranayama Techniques
Best for: Mindfulness meditation, focus, good health, and yogic exercises.
Pranayama or yogic breathing prioritizes awareness. Yoga seeks to create a combined sense of awareness that incorporates the breath, mind, and body. It’s proven to reduce depression and stress. This technique will help you pay attention to what your body is doing in the present moment and supports healing, personal development and mental or emotional transformations, and spiritual practices. Yogic breathing includes four primary skills:
- Nose breathing.
- Focus, in particular, the ability to focus exclusively on the breath.
- Breathing through the diaphragm.
- Strengthening the diaphragm to allow for more effective, connected, and efficient breathing.
The exercises below are ayurvedic warm-ups. They can be used independently or in conjunction to help you begin noticing, focusing on, and controlling your breath. After a warm-up exercise, you can work your breath into more meditative even breathing. The end result of yogic breathing tends to be quiet without snoring sounds, physically smooth, and located deep in the belly or diaphragm.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana/Nadi Shuddhi) – Use your right thumb to close your right nostril. Breath in through the left nostril. Then, close the left nostril and breathe out through the right nostril. Reverse the process, breathing in through your right nostril and out through your left. Continue this cycle until you feel that you feel focused and relaxed, or for 5 minutes, whichever comes first.
- Uninostril Breathing (Surya Anuloma Viloma/Chandra Anuloma Viloma) – Close one of your nostrils. Then, inhale and exhale exclusively through the open nostril. Try to keep your breathing slow and evenly paced.
- Right Nostril Initiated Breathing (Surya Bhedana) – Close the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril. Then close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Repeat this process as desired for mental focus.
- Psychic Breath (Ujjayi) – Inhale and exhale through the nose at a steady, comfortable pace. As you do so, partially contract the glottis (the area at the back of your throat). Your breath may sound like light snoring. Remain aware of the breath as it passes through your throat.
- Female Honey Bee Humming Breath (Bhramari) – Fully inhale. Then, use your index fingers to close your ears. Exhale while making a soft humming sound, like a honeybee.
Best for: Slowing the breath for focus and deliberation, physical training, and quitting smoking.
This technique is used by retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, to aid slow, calm deliberation and respiratory strengthening. Box breathing is a great way to calm the nerves and work toward physical fitness. It can help individuals regulate involuntary bodily functions, such as body temperature. Additionally, holding the breath allows a healthy buildup of carbon dioxide. Like most healthy respiration techniques, box breathing requires you to breathe through the nose and expand the breath through the belly or diaphragm. How to Box Breathe:
- Inhale for a five-second count.
- Hold the breath in for another five seconds.
- Exhale for five seconds.
- Hold the breath from another five-second count.
You can practice this technique for one to three minutes several times a day or before a meeting or event, whenever you feel nervous or anxious.
The Buteyko Method
Best for: Physical health and exercise training, controlling anxiety and panic attacks, promoting good sleep, and decreasing the effects of asthma and sleep apnea.
Developed in Russia as a treatment for asthma, the Buteyko Breathing Method works to reverse the health problems that come with improper breathing, over-breathing, and mouth breathing. Buteyko traces the development back to his own realization one night that his heavy breathing was not a symptom but, instead, the actual cause of his respiration problems. He then worked to slow down his own breath and began to feel results. Reducing how much we breathe increases the oxygen that our tissue, organs, and especially our brain, are able to absorb.
Buteyko reminds us that we breathe more often than we really need to. The average adult takes 12 to 20 breaths a minute. However, with focused, deliberate breathing that slows the heart rate and offers more efficient usage of oxygen, a person can slow down to six breaths a minute. The Buteyko Breathing Method reminds us that breathing less is an indication of being healthier. Positive physical effects can include increased physical temperature or less commonly, temperature stability in extreme environments — which is a signal of better blood circulation.
Best for: Improving the quality of life through increased motivation, health, and energy.
Qi breathing is a meditative deep breathing technique developed from traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine with a modern twist. It helps to focus the mind on goals to channel motivation. How to begin with Qi:
- State your intention for your breathing session. For example, you might want to find energy and motivation, or you might want focus and relaxation.
- Inhale and exhale deeply and quickly through the nose in one-second bursts. Imagine your breath moving in a circle through your body, as it flows up the back of the spine and then down the front.
- Incorporate a rocking movement with the breathing by rocking forward to your knees on the exhalation and the backward on the inhalation. Focus primarily on the inhalation and the ability to draw in energy.
- Maintain your focus in your breath and keep a quiet mind.
At the end of a Qi breathing practice, you might find deep peace or energetic bliss. Shorter Qi breathing sessions can last for three minutes, but longer meditative Qi breathing can last up to thirty minutes.
The above breathing techniques were adapted from the article, Breathing Techniques: A Guide to the Science and MethodsShare this article!
There are so many breathing methods out there and I like that you have provided info on what each breathing method is best for. I certainly need to correct my shallow breathing and would like to try out the methods you’ve outlined. Your article is helpful! Thank you!
It is amazing how we pick up bad breathing habits. I know I am guilty of it. I do controlled breathing every day and at times throughout the day to try to better my breathing. I think it’s helping. 🙂
Thank you for a very helpful article. I practice breathing techniques to fall asleep by never thought to do so during the day. I will be more conscious to do so more often. Appreciate the information.
What a fantastic resource. I especially like the section on the effects of breathing incorrectly. And the detailed techniques are awesome. I will try them out.
Thanks for this Debbie. What a useful resource. I know and use some of these. But there’s a couple of new ones for me to try.
I’m glad you found it useful, Elle.
I hadn’t heard of Buteko breathing. This is a valuable list, Debbie! Of course I know that Yoga and Tai Chi offer miraculous results. I believe in pausing to breathe –it is a great way to become centered and grounded. Thank you!
I had never heard of Buteko breathing either. I use controlling my breath as a calming tool every day! Good stuff. 🙂
I was reading up on breathing tonight, and I found something on another site I believe someone plagiarized from you. If you’d like to know the site, you can e-mail me, and I will send it to you.
Thank you, Donna, Unfortunately, people reproduce my articles on their sites all the time. There is not a whole lot I can do about it other than pursue costly legal action. I just consider it a compliment.
When it gets really bad, I’ll make it so people cannot copy text off of my website. However, they can still copy articles other ways and that has disadvantages for me as well
Thank you for your concern.
This is a great resource, Debbie. I used the Yogic breathing in my yoga classes quite a bit lately, and I also use breathing techniques to help me sleep on occasion. It is nice to be aware of others that can be helpful.
This is so helpful Debbie! I know folks are often confused with the many ways we can breathe to calm down. This article provides so much clarity. Thank you for sharing!