Breathing Techniques to Reduce Stress, Prevent Insomnia, and Make Life Better
Core - Edition Nº23
Life begins and ends with a breath. We enter the world through inhaling. We leave it by exhaling. Breathing and control are so central to life that we characterise their value not only as a survival mechanism but as important to control the functioning of our mind and body and well-being.
From the first millennium B.C., religions placed enormous importance on the “vital principle”. The energy that comes from breathing. The Chinese called this energy qi, while Hindus called it prana (now one of the key concepts of yoga).
Later, the West found the Greek term pneuma and the Hebrew term rûah referring to breathing and the divine presence. In Latin languages: spiritus, is the root of “spirit” and “respiration”.
The benefit of modulating our breathing appeared in documentation centuries ago. Pranayama (“breath retention”) yoga inaugurated the first theory around respiratory control—that controlled breathing could increase longevity.
Closer to today, a German psychiatrist named Johannes Heinrich Schultz conjured “autogenic training” in the 1920s to use as a way to relax. Slow and deep breathing is now one of the most popular breathing techniques for relaxation in the West.
In other words, every relaxation or meditation method relies on breathing. It’s a common denominator in all approaches to calming the body and mind and has been highly regarded for longer than we imagine.
It’s all about the breath
Breathing is something you do every day, every minute, every second. But how often do you pay attention to it?
It’s more than just a way to get oxygen into the body. We all know that emotions affect the body. Happiness raises the corners of your mouth. Calm and safety slow and deepens your breath. While feeling frightened, tense or uncomfortable quickens your breathing and induces stress.
Less well-known is that the opposite is also true: the body affects emotions. When your face smiles, your brain reacts—you feel more pleasant emotions. Breathing also has a special effect on the mind.
Rapid breathing can exacerbate panic attacks and aggravate our discomfort and anxiety. But whether anxiety derives from breathing problems or other causes, we can ease it using various breathing techniques derived from the East and other parts of the world.
One is proper nasal breathing, which filters, humidifies, and warms the air before it enters your lungs. And it stimulates the production of nitric oxide to dilate your blood vessels which improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to your tissues. Another technique is the phrase “follow your breath”, which is about focusing your attention on your breathing. It’s one of the first steps in mindfulness meditation and harmonises your body and mind. Mor about that later.
When to use them
You should apply slow-breathing techniques during any occasional episode of stress. For example, before an exam or competition, or even as you attend a routine meeting at work. Techniques such as alternate nasal breathing have also been shown to reduce stress and may help when insomnia strikes or even when experiencing chronic anxiety.
Breathing exercises can help you with accumulated but minor physical tension associated with stress. You can do these exercises regularly during the day: during your breaks or when transitioning between two activities.
Simply adjust your posture and give yourself a few minutes of quiet breathing. Some therapists offer the “365 method” where you breathe at a rhythm of six cycles per minute (five seconds in, five seconds out) for five minutes. Do this three times a day, every day, all year. On top of the immediate relief, regular breathing exercises like this can make us less vulnerable to stress by permanently modifying our brain circuits.
You don’t have to confine them to negative emotions only, either. It’s also worth applying them to pleasurable moments, too, to take the time to appreciate and remember them.
Use it for enjoyment just as much as you do to calm down.
Below are some common breathing techniques. 5-10 minutes of exercise can relieve sporadic stress and fend off panic attacks. And more regular practice can lower your daily levels of anxiety or re-train your triggers.
Abdominal bracing and breathing
Brace your stomach by lightly tightening your core muscles around your six-pack muscle and placing one hand flat on your chest and one on your belly.
Breathe in through your nose and feel your stomach rise
Breathe out through your mouth and feel your stomach fall
Repeat for several breaths
Alternate nasal breathing
Breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, holding the other one closed using your finger; then reverse and continue by alternating them regularly. There are many variations of this, such as inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. But the most important thing is to breathe through your nose and ensure you have a slow breathing rhythm.
“Follow your breath”
Observe your breathing: be aware of each inhale and exhale. Focus on the sensations. Feel the air pass through you or on the movements of your chest and stomach. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.
Pursed lip breathing
This technique helps to slow your breathing rate and prevent “over-breathing”.
Inhale slowly through your nose for two seconds
Purse your lips as if you were going to blow out a candle
Exhale gently through for around four seconds
Repeat for several minutes.
Reassure yourself while breathing
With each breath, soothe your mind with your thoughts. Tell yourself reassuring statements (“I am calm, relieved, happy”). And with each exhalation, imagine you are expelling your fears and worries (“I am letting go of my stress”).
Stand up straight
Posture is important for breathing. Alongside the bracing technique, it is important to stand straight, without stiffness, with your shoulders back, to help your body breathe properly on its own.