What if you learned there was a simple way to decrease anxiety, fall asleep more quickly, boost energy, and more? Oh, and it requires no equipment, can be done anywhere, and is completely free? Plus, you’ve already mastered the basics, you just need to refine your technique to access the full benefits of this practice. If you haven’t guessed yet, we’re talking about breathing exercises.
Mindful breathing exercises can help both your body and your mind function their best. Not only have breathing exercises been shown to bring about feelings of calm and relaxation, but they can also lower your blood pressure. While there’s not an extensive amount of hard data on the benefits of breathing exercises, what does exist is quite promising. Experts say you can use strategic breathing techniques to focus better, to stay calm in stressful situations, and to achieve that often-elusive state of Zen.
We all know how to breath. But learning certain techniques, which shift the way you engage and regulate your breathing, can change both the way you feel as well as the physical state of your body.
The average adult takes approximately 20,000 breaths per day. Most of those breaths, however, are quite shallow—what experts refer to as “chest breathing.”
When we develop voluntary control of the musculature in the chest, between ages four and seven, the way we breathe unconsciously changes. The reason babies can scream so loudly, despite being so tiny, is that they haven’t yet mastered chest breathing. Instead, they do diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is a thin sheet of muscle that spans the bottom of the ribcage, separating the thoracic cavity where the heart and lungs live from the abdominal cavity. As the diaphragm contracts, the thoracic cavity expands and oxygen rushes deep into your lungs.
When babies and young children breathe, their stomachs expand outward while their lower ribs expand sideways. This causes the diaphragm to contract and sends oxygen-rich air whooshing to the very bottom of the lungs. Think about watching a small child sleep, the way you can actually see the belly rise and fall.
In adulthood, and especially when we’re stressed, upset, or experiencing heightened emotions, we take short, fast breaths meant to help our bodies prepare to respond to danger. Our shoulders rise and fall as we breathe, keeping the air we inhale locked in our upper chest and increasing negative feelings.
For many of us, this becomes our default way of breathing. This means we only use the top third of our lungs, which as you might be able to guess, is far from optimal. In fact, it has widespread health consequences.
But it is possible to reverse course. You can reconnect with your breath with the process of inhaling and absorbing oxygen, then exhaling and ridding your body of carbon dioxide.
Centuries of wisdom back the concept that paying attention to our breathing can be beneficial. But because we breathe all day, every day, it’s easy to tune out from the process. Getting some insight into what happens each time you inhale and exhale can improve your health in a multitude of ways. As researchers begin to explore the science of breathing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the ancient philosophers were onto something.
According to a 2016 study, an area in the brainstem called the neural circuit plays a key role in the link between your breathing and your mental and physical health. The neural circuit helps set the pace for your breathing, and your breathing, in turn, influences how much activity transpires within the circuit. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity, while fast, erratic breathing increases it. Those breathing patterns, in turn, influence your emotions and bodily functions.
The authors of the study, which was published in Science, one of the top peer-reviewed academic journals in the world, concluded: “Although breathing is generally thought of as an autonomic behavior, higher-order brain functions can exert exquisite control over breathing. Our results show, conversely, that the breathing center has a direct and powerful influence on higher-order brain function. It will thus be important to map the full range of behaviors and functions the breathing center controls.”
Researchers are still exploring exactly how breathing influences brain function, and vice versa, but simply proving the connection does, in fact, exist, is a big step.
Here are some concrete ways, identified by scientists, that breathing exercises can benefit your health.
Whether you’re dealing with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), another anxiety disorder, or anxiety arising from a specific experience, breathing exercises can be an incredibly helpful tool.
A 2012 randomized-controlled trial published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal from the Public Library of Science, found that practicing a slow breathing technique substantially reduced physical symptoms of anxiety. The study enrolled trained musicians who struggled with performance anxiety. After a single session of slow breathing prior to a performance, the musicians’ self-reported anxiety levels dropped. Those who reported high levels of anxiety experienced the greatest benefits.
According to the researchers, their findings indicate that a single session of slow breathing “is sufficient for controlling physiological arousal” associated with anxiety. They suggest that further research be done on the use of breathing techniques as a low-cost, non-pharmacological treatment for anxiety.
One reason breathing exercises for anxiety are so effective is that they activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This shifts your body out of fight-or-flight mode—the classic way to frame a panic response, though researchers have proposed that fight-flight-freeze may be more accurate—which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. Once your parasympathetic nervous system takes over, your body can chill out. As your breathing deepens, your heart rate drops and a feeling of calm sets in.
If you struggle to fall asleep—as many of us do, statistics say nearly one out of five people experience insomnia at some point in their lives—you know just how challenging it can be to treat this problem. Many conventional, over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids leave you groggy the next morning. But doing breathing exercises to fall asleep can help you stay asleep without any unwanted side effects.
As we discussed above, slow, deep breathing overrides the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic system. This tells your body there’s no need to be on high alert, and it’s safe to relax.
Using breathing exercises to fall asleep can also interrupt your brain’s worry cycle, helping it ease into unconsciousness.
While no studies to date have specifically looked at the use of breathing exercises to treat insomnia, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to support this. Plus, some data on the physiological impact of breathing exercises gives insight into why it works. A 2006 article published in Medical Hypotheses revealed that slow, deep breathing increases melatonin production. As you may know, your body naturally produces more melatonin—known colloquially as the sleep hormone—when it gets dark outside, preparing your body for sleep. It appears that deep breathing gives you a melatonin boost, no supplements needed!
Remember earlier when we talked about how the diaphragm contracting lets our lungs fill more completely? One of the major benefits of this kind of diaphragmatic breathing is that it helps oxygen spread more rapidly and completely through the body. Your lungs transmit oxygen to the rest of the body via the capillaries, fine branching blood vessels. There are more capillaries in the lower part of your lungs, meaning the deeper you breathe, the more efficiently you transport oxygen throughout your body.
That’s why you can use diaphragmatic breathing exercises for more energy. Increased oxygen saturation boosts your cognitive function and leads to healthier organs, muscles, and tissues.
Plus, deep, diaphragmatic breathing causes the abdominal muscles to expand and contract around your digestive system, which helps it function more smoothly. Better digestion also increases energy levels.
A 2013 article published in PLOS One explained that deep breathing can induce something known as the relaxation response. Even a single session of relaxation-response inducing breathing can actually change the way your genes express themselves, including genes associated with energy metabolism. So, you’ll be relaxed and full of energy. Sounds like a serious win-win!
Breathing exercises can also improve your focus. The results of a 2018 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal, showed that controlling your breathing by counting breaths influences “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain.”
For the study, researchers asked participants to count how many breaths they took over a two-minute period. When they counted accurately, EEG readings of brain activity—aka “neuronal oscillations”—showed more organized patterns in the regions of the brain related to memory, awareness, and emotion than would normally appear when the brain is in a resting state.
This indicates that controlling your breathing can profoundly affect brain function, boosting both your memory and your awareness.
A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, a peer-reviewed academic journal, also found a link between breathing exercises and focus. Participants in the breathing intervention group (BIG) received 20 intensive trainings over the course of eight weeks and used a real-time feedback device to track their respiratory rate. Compared to the measures from before the study began, the researchers found “significantly increased sustained attention,” as well as improved mood and lower cortisol levels.
Yet another study, this one published in Psychophysiology, a monthly, peer-reviewed scientific journal, showed that you can use breathing exercises to improve focus. Researchers at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity found a clear link between how well participants synchronized their breathing patterns and their attention with how well they were able to focus on a given task.
In hopes of identifying a neurophysiological link that could explain the way breathing improves focus, the researchers looked at brain activity in a small area of the brainstem called the locus coeruleus where a chemical called noradrenaline is made. “When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus,” explained lead author Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. “When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus,” Melnychuk continued. “There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
Melnychuk and his co-researchers found that as you breathe in, activity in the locus coeruleus increases, and as you breathe out, it decreases. They believe that this indicates you can use breathing exercises to optimize your attention level.
As we touched on briefly above, you can use breathing exercises to improve memory too.
A 2016 study revealed for the first time that the rhythm of our breathing produces electrical activity in the brain that affects how well we remember things. For the study, a research team from Northwestern University used EEG data to prove that there is a connection between our breathing and our memory capacity.
“Notably, oscillatory power peaked during inspiration and dissipated when breathing was diverted from nose to mouth,” the researchers stated. This means that breathing in boosts your memory capacity, while breathing through your mouth decreases it. The researchers believe that this may be because nasal inhalation increases activity in the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in several functions related to memory.
While you may not be able to exclusively use breathing exercises to manage high blood pressure, research demonstrates that slowing your breathing increases “baroreflex sensitivity,” the mechanism that, by regulating your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure. When practiced regularly over time, this technique of using deep, slow breathing to lower your heart rate and, consequently, your blood pressure, can reduce your risk of stroke and cerebral aneurysm, as well as decrease overall stress on blood vessels.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Human Hypertension, a monthly, peer-reviewed medical journal, showed that using slow-breathing exercises can decrease resting blood pressure in hypertensive patients. The study did note that the effects did not last overnight, meaning more research is needed to determine if breathing exercises can be adapted somehow to produce more prolonged results.
And a 2006 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, an international, peer-reviewed journal, found that slow breathing can be used as an adjunctive treatment for patients with hypertension.
The study, conducted by an Indian research team, enrolled 100 patients. They recorded various measurements during a resting state, and then again during and after 10 minutes of slow breathing. They found that slow breathing brought about a fall in systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and electromyographic activity. They concluded that even a single session of slow breathing had a significant impact on blood pressure levels.
Now that we’ve gone over all the wonderful benefits of breathing exercises, let’s learn different breathing exercise techniques so you can decide which will be best for you.
This very basic breathing exercise can help you relax and center your mind. Start by sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths, then let your breathing settle into its normal rhythm. As you exhale, mentally count “one.” On your next exhale, count “two.” Repeat this until you reach five, and then repeat the pattern from the beginning.
If you lose count before you reach five, start again at one. This may sound like an easy task, but it requires quite a lot of concentration. Bringing attention to your breath will stop churning thought cycles and ensure you inhale deeply and exhale completely, bringing you myriad benefits.
This very simple breathing technique can also help you fall asleep. Here’s how it works. First, you exhale through your mouth, then close it, then inhale through your nose for four counts. Next, hold your breath for seven counts. Finally, exhale for eight counts. Then, repeat the cycle at least three times.
Because you breathe out for eight full counts, your breathing automatically slows down. This, in turn, slows your heart rate, which helps you to relax.
This exercise is all about balance. Begin by inhaling through your nose for four counts, then exhale through your nose for four counts. Once you’ve mastered that, try inhaling for six to eight counts, then exhaling for the same number of counts.
According to yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco, this breathing exercise is a great way to calm the nervous system, increase focus, and reduce stress. It’s especially effective, she says, for dealing with insomnia. “Similar to counting sheep, if you’re having trouble falling asleep, this breath can help take your mind off racing thoughts or whatever might be distracting you.”
This technique helps to ensure you’re contracting your diaphragm as you breathe. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly, and then breathe in deeply through your nose. You should feel the hand on your belly rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale.
Try breathing this way—with a goal of 6 to 10 deep, slow breaths a minute—for 10 minutes each day. According to breathing expert Dr. Alison McConnell, this can immediately decrease both your heart rate and blood pressure. It can be especially helpful if you’re in the midst of a stressful situation.
If you’re habitually stressed, you may find it challenging to control your breathing like this, but if you stick with it, you’ll find the benefits make the effort highly worthwhile.
This breathing technique, highly popular with yogis, is said to bring about feelings of calm and balance by uniting the left and right sides of the brain.
Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, the kind you’d choose for a meditation session. Place your thumb over your right nostril and inhale deeply through your left nostril. At the end of your exhale, use your ring finger to close off your left nostril, then exhale through your right nostril. Next, inhale through your right nostril, close it off with your thumb, and exhale through your left nostril. Continue the pattern like that.
This breathing exercise is the perfect way to increase focus and raise your energy levels. It’s said to clear the channels and wake you up, so don’t try this one if you’re ready for bed. “It’s almost like a cup of coffee,” Pacheco explained.
If Nadi Shodhana is like a cup of coffee, Kapalabhati is like a shot of espresso, according to Pacheco. This breathing exercise can rapidly boost your energy, but won’t leave you jittery the way an actual shot of espresso can.
First, take a long, slow breath in through your nose. Then, quickly and forcefully exhale through your nose, focusing on generating the power of the exhale by contracting your lower belly. As you get more comfortable with the contraction you need to power the exhale, increase the pace of your breathing so that you’re inhaling and exhaling every one to two seconds. Repeat for a set of 10.
This abdominal-intensive exercise will warm up your body, help you shake of stale energy, and wake up your brain!