Mindfulness, defined simply as the practice of being present and aware of what you are doing, has been a hot topic over the last few years. We know that many practices such as yoga, meditation, and even martial arts can help bring a calmer state of mind, meaning free of stress and instead filled with peace and tranquility. However, the data on mindfulness is mixed. Though very effective for some, for others not so much. It may be incredibly challenging for those with high levels of anxiety to sit and “observe thoughts moment-to-moment in a non-judgmental way”. Trying to alter your thinking by employing thought itself is kind of like trying to get your skin to scratch itself. There is an inherent and close connection between the thing you are trying to shift (your thoughts), the thing doing the thinking (you in your mind), and the substrate you want to change (which brings us back to your thoughts). Another drawback of these skills is that they take time to acquire.
So instead, what if I told you that you have access to one of the most effective tools for managing any kind of stress? Well, it’s true. Believe it or not, something as simple as breathing can have a profound impact on your mental and physical health.
A recent randomized clinical trial at Yale evaluated the effects of three therapeutic interventions, along with a control group: SKY Campus Happiness (SKY), where participants learned yoga postures, breathing exercises, a breath-based meditation technique, and positive psychology skills; Foundations of Emotional Intelligence (EI), a program focused on teaching knowledge of emotions and emotion regulation; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which focused on mindfulness meditation, body scanning, and yoga postures (1).They found that the SKY group experienced greater benefits in mental health, social connectedness, positive emotions, stress levels, depression, and mindfulness.
Now as lifters breathing is also important, as we know the process of preparing for and going through a lift: you take a big breath in, brace, start your first rep, etc. Proper bracing increases the safety of the lift, as well as the efficiency, and ensuring that the spine is locked into position. This is known as the Valsalva maneuver (2), where there is a forceful attempt of exhalation against a closed airway. Outside of this, we may find we typically pay little attention to what our respirations are doing. You are most likely breathing in and out 12 to 15 times per minute if you are reading this while lying, sitting, or standing. During each of those minutes, you barely notice your breathing.
Along with the act itself, we also frequently neglect to pay attention to our breathing patterns. Particularly when we use our mouths or noses. Although air enters and exits our lungs in a useful manner regardless of how we breathe, breathing through the nose has a significant impact on brain rhythms (3).
As evolved as we may be, humans are animals. A complex, multifaceted species with capabilities that continue to be discovered. Even so, beneath our behaviors are seemingly automatic, often disregarded processes like breathing and postural adjustments that depend on the brain’s integration of balance and breathing.
What Is Breathwork?
In general, breathwork practices use techniques to slow down the breath and extend exhalations past the length of inhalations. It does not require you to have any specific belief or circumstances to benefit. Conscious regulation of the breath can help increase focus on the here and now while also calming your thoughts. Research has also shown that breathing patterns and emotions are related, and that breathing can affect how you feel, as well as improve your decision making (4, 5).
One of the purposes of breathing is to get oxygen from the air into the body and expel waste, such as carbon dioxide. Oxygen is required for the proper functioning of every cell in your body and the brain has the highest metabolic activity out of every organ in the body. Brain cells are particularly sensitive ones, because they begin to die within minutes of being oxygen deprived, otherwise known as cerebral hypoxia. Additionally, minor changes in oxygen content in the brain can impact the way a person behaves and feels (4). I mean, I can’t say I’d be all Zen if I wasn’t able to breathe!
During a state of stress, the prefrontal cortex is impaired. This area of the brain is responsible for rational thought, hence why it can be challenging to use logic when you’re experiencing strong emotions. A study noted that different emotions are associated with different patterns of breathing (4). When we become angry or anxious, our breathing pattern changes almost immediately, with shallower and significantly faster breaths.
What does this tell us? Breathing is one of the few body functions that may be managed both consciously and automatically. By consciously switching your breathing pattern to a “calmer” breath, the vagus nerve is stimulated, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This can bring about relaxation in just a few minutes (6). Pretty neat when you get experiential confirmation of this!
It is important to make the distinction between top-down and bottom-up regulation for understanding and coping with stress. Top-down regulation entails increasing the frontal lobes’ – particularly the medial prefrontal cortex – capacity to keep track of your body’s sensations. Yoga and mindfulness meditation both leverage this to your benefit (ideally). In contrast, bottom-up regulation involves the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – which has its origins in the brain stem – recalibrating itself. You can use your breath, movement, or touch to access the ANS.
Trauma experiences are natural, unconscious reactions. However, the prefrontal brain link is decreased when you are activated/heightened or have undergone trauma, making it difficult or ineffective to access rational thought processes or adjust cognitive patterns. When you feel calm and safe (which can be achieved by breathwork) it then becomes easier to access your prefrontal cortex’s conscious, rational thinking, making top-down tactics more beneficial.
This is also useful to know, as therapists utilize different methods based on these approaches to information processing. Depending on your needs, interests, and experiences, your optimum strategy will be different, but both methods of approach can be successful (and potentially synergistic)!
How to Allow Your Breath to Relax You
Next time you’re around a baby or a puppy, watch how they breathe! You’ll see that they barely move their upper chest as they breathe. Many adults do not breathe diaphragmatically, however there are many benefits including improving attention, stress, anxiety, blood pressure, sleep, and managing asthma and COPD from doing so (7, 8, 9, 10, 11). Do you mostly breathe with your chest? Mostly with your stomach? Or with both? Remember that the way you breathe has a significant impact on how you feel (12).
This is the first and main exercise I teach my clients, whether or not they struggle with anxiety. Find a comfortable place to sit and close your eyes. The guidance I give is to place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest and allow your body to breathe YOU. Do this for a couple of minutes, noticing the rhythm of your breathing as objectively as possible.
For a more active breathing exercise you can practice alternate-nostril breathing (13). This involves taking your right thumb and use it to close your right nostril while inhaling slowly through your left nostril. Then close your left nostril with your right pointer or ring finger and exhale through your right nostril. Continue this way for up to 10 cycles of breath.
Continued focus on your breathing over time, particularly if you pay attention to the very end of the breath and wait a brief moment before you inhale again, will enhance the benefits of breathwork (14). While you continue to breathe and notice the air traveling in and out of your lungs, you have the opportunity to consider the role that oxygen serves in supplying your body with nutrients and the energy your tissues require to feel alive and active. If you struggle with body image, this visualization and sensation can help move your focus away from placing value on physical traits and more so on all that your body does for you each moment.
Here’s another exercise you can practice to shift an unhealthy breathing pattern. Lie on your back and place a small book on your stomach. As you breathe in, intentionally make the book rise, conversely make the book fall as you exhale. The shift of the center of breathing lower in your body will increase relaxation and a better sense of self-control (7).
You don’t necessarily need to be in a seated meditation-style position to practice breathwork; however, if that’s the only way you are able to concentrate, then absolutely do it. Otherwise, consistent practice for short moments throughout the day will help you develop a deeper sense of calm and peace.
In a future article, I will explore more about why cultivating sensory awareness is such a critical aspect of general stress management, emotion regulation, and trauma/PTSD recovery. Therapy modalities, such as somatic experiencing increase our understanding of the moment-to-moment shifts in our inner sensory world (15), which is often downplayed in most traditional therapy approaches.
So, remember, the way we breathe has a significant impact on how we perceive daily life and is closely related to our ability to truly be in the present moment. The good news is that you don’t even need any special equipment to practice, and you can do it right now. It’s at the tip of your nose! Changing the way you breathe might just help you change your life.
Amanda Rizo, M.S., LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
How to get in contact with me:
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- De Couck, M., Caers, R., Musch, L., Fliegauf, J., Giangreco, A., & Gidron, Y. (2019). How breathing can help you make better decisions: Two studies on the effects of breathing patterns on heart rate variability and decision-making in business cases. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 139, 1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.02.011
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- Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., Li, Y.F. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(8), 874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
- Chen, Y.-F., Huang, X.-Y., Chien, C.-H. and Cheng, J.-F. (2017), The Effectiveness of Diaphragmatic Breathing Relaxation Training for Reducing Anxiety. Perspective Psychiatric Care, 53: 329-336. https://doi.org/10.1111/ppc.12184
- Liu, Y., Jiang, T. T., Shi, T. Y., Liu, Y. N., Liu, X. M., Xu, G. J., Li, F. L., Wang, Y. L,, Wu, X. Y., (2021). The effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training for improving sleep quality among nursing staff during the COVID-19 outbreak: a before and after study. Sleep Med, 78, 8-14. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2020.12.003
- Shaw, I., Shaw, B., & Brown, G. (2010). Role of diaphragmatic breathing and aerobic exercise in improving pulmonary function and maximal oxygen consumption in asthmatics. Science & Sports, 25, 139-145. 10.1016/j.scispo.2009.10.003.
- Lu, Y., Li, P., Li, N., Wang, Z., Li, J., Liu, X., Wu, W. (2020). Effects of Home-Based Breathing Exercises in Subjects With COPD. Respir Care, 65(3), 377-387. doi: 10.4187/respcare.07121
- Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 12, 353. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
- Niazi, I.K., Navid, M.S., Bartley, J., Bartley, J., Shepherd, D., Pedersen, M., Burns, G., Taylor, D., & White, D. E. (2022). EEG signatures change during unilateral Yogi nasal breathing. Scientific Reports, 12, 520. doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-04461-8
- Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking.
- Brom, D., Stokar, Y., Lawi, C., Nuriel-Porat, V., Ziv, Y., Lerner, K., Ross, G. (2017). Somatic Experiencing for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Outcome Study. Journal of Trauma Stress, 30(3), 304-312. doi: 10.1002/jts.22189