In a moment of chaos when people tell you to “just take a deep breath”, it can sometimes feel like it only makes things worse. At times it can feel more irritating than helpful. It’s also become such an everyday expression that most of us no longer pay attention to it. But if you can get beyond the familiarity of it, deep breathing actually turns out to be great advice!
Most of our breaths tend to be shallow, with more of an inhale than exhale. We breathe from our chest, and we breathe quickly. When we breathe this way, we’re missing out on so many natural benefits that come with breathing deeply! Here are just a few things we’re missing out on with shallow breaths:
Potential Benefits of Deep Breathing
- Reduced stress
- Decreased blood pressure
- Relaxed muscles
- Slowed heart rate
- Relief of general body aches
- Better and healthier sleep
- Increased energy level
- Ridding the body of toxins
- Better blood-flow
The Basic Science Behind Your Breathing
Our brains, both our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), are affected by the way we breathe. These systems in our bodies are responsible for hyping us up when there’s danger, and then calming us down to recuperate and rest. When activated, the SNS increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. The SNS is activated when we inhale; so with each inhale, we raise our heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
The PNS, on the other hand, is activated by exhaling, and slows the heart rate and relaxes our muscles. When we put more emphasis on our exhales than our inhales, we increase PNS activity and decrease SNS activity, causing our body to slow down and to relax.
What Does “Breathing Deep” Look Like?
There are a lot of different ways people measure deep breaths, but the important thing is you want to fill your lungs from the bottom up (breathing from your belly rather than your chest), and you want to maximize your exhale. Here are a few simple counting examples:
- 4-count, 6-count: Count to 4 while breathing in, count to 6 while breathing out. You can also start with 2-4 if 4-6 feels like too much, or move to 6-8, if you think you can do longer breaths.
- 4-7-8: Count to 4 while breathing in, hold to a count of 7, then count to 8 while breathing out.
- 4 Square Breathing: Count to 4 while breathing in, hold to a count of 4, breathe out to a count of 4, and hold to a count of 4.
It is helpful to practice breathing deeply when you aren’t upset or anxious, for 10-15 minutes at a time. Don’t worry if you can’t do 10 minutes all at once! I’ve known many people get lightheaded and frustrated with themselves at first, but then are able to increase their ability to deep breather longer. Build up your stamina slowly, starting with just a minute or two if your can’t do all 10.
Practicing when calm gives you the upper hand for more stressful times to come. This way, when you are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, the exercises come more naturally. It is also helpful to put a hand on your stomach to remind yourself to breathe from the belly, not from the chest.
Regular deep breathing has many great benefits! I recommend and incorporate deep breathing in my therapy practice and have seen it be a rich resource for people. As it turns out, “Take a deep breath” may actually be the most helpful advice to give yourself. If you need help learning to incorporate deep breathing or stress management into your life, give me a call. I would be glad to help you.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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