Breathing is essential for human life, yet it's something that most of us give no thought at all to. Since we breathe subconsciously, many of us don't notice changes in the way we breath which have a significant impact on how we feel, both physically and mentally.
When we are feeling down or stressed, our breathing patterns can be affected in several ways:
Shallow and rapid breathing: In response to negative emotions or stress, our breathing may become shallow and rapid. This type of breathing is often centred in the chest rather than the diaphragm. Shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen we take in and can contribute to feelings of anxiety, tension, and fatigue.
Breath holding or irregular breathing: During moments of heightened stress or emotional distress, we might find ourselves unconsciously holding our breath or experiencing irregular breathing patterns. This can further restrict oxygen flow and disrupt the body's natural balance, potentially exacerbating feelings of unease or overwhelm.
Hyperventilation: In some cases, intense stress or panic can lead to hyperventilation. This occurs when we take in rapid, deep breaths that exceed the body's oxygen needs, causing an imbalance in carbon dioxide levels. Hyperventilation can result in symptoms such as dizziness, lightheadedness, tingling sensations, and a sense of being out of control.
Restricted or constrained breathing: Emotional distress or feelings of being overwhelmed can also cause a sense of constriction or tightness in the chest, leading to restricted breathing. This can manifest as shallow breaths or a sensation of not being able to take a full, deep breath. It can intensify feelings of stress and contribute to a cycle of tension and discomfort.
Uneven or irregular breath timing: When we are under stress or feeling down, our breath rhythm can become irregular or uneven. We may experience pauses, prolonged exhalations, or shortened inhalations. These irregularities in breath timing can disrupt the natural flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, potentially impacting our mental and emotional state.
Recognising these altered breathing patterns during moments of distress is important. By becoming aware of our breath and consciously practicing deep, diaphragmatic breathing, we can help regulate our emotions and promote a sense of calmness. Breathing exercises and techniques aimed at slowing down the breath and engaging the diaphragm can be effective in restoring a more balanced and relaxed state of mind.
Breathing can help us mentally in several ways:
Stress and anxiety reduction: Slow, deep breathing activates the body's relaxation response, which helps counteract the effects of stress and anxiety. It triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, leading to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. This promotes a sense of calmness, relaxation, and overall mental well-being.
Increased focus and concentration: Deep breathing techniques, such as mindful breathing, can help improve focus and concentration. By directing our attention to the breath, we cultivate mindfulness and bring our awareness to the present moment. This can enhance cognitive function and productivity.
Emotional regulation: Our breath and emotions are closely interconnected. When we experience intense emotions, our breath tends to become shallow and rapid. By consciously slowing down and deepening our breath, we can regulate our emotional state. Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps activate the body's relaxation response and promotes emotional balance.
Mindfulness and presence: Breathing exercises are often used as a foundational practice in mindfulness. Focusing on the breath can anchor our attention to the present moment, helping to calm the mind and reduce rumination. It allows us to observe our thoughts and emotions without judgment, fostering a state of mental clarity and inner peace.
Mood elevation: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural "feel-good" chemicals. By increasing oxygen levels and improving blood circulation, breathing exercises can contribute to an uplifted mood and a sense of well-being.
Stress resilience: Regular practice of breathing techniques can help build resilience to stress. By training the body to activate the relaxation response through conscious breathing, we develop a coping mechanism that can be employed in challenging situations. This can improve our ability to manage stress and adapt to adversity.
Improved sleep quality: Practicing deep breathing before bed or as part of a bedtime routine can help calm the mind and prepare the body for restful sleep. By promoting relaxation and reducing racing thoughts, breathing exercises can contribute to improved sleep quality and overall mental rejuvenation.
Incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine, particularly during moments of stress, anxiety, or when you need to centre yourself, can provide mental clarity, relaxation, and emotional balance. It's important to note that individual experiences may vary, so finding the specific breathing techniques that work best for you can be a personal exploration.
To experience the mental benefits of breathing exercises, you can try the following technique:
Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Slowly inhale deeply, counting to four, allowing your belly to rise with the breath.
Hold your breath for a count of four.
Exhale slowly and fully for a count of four, allowing your belly to fall.
Pause for a count of four before taking the next breath.
Repeat this pattern for several minutes, focusing on the sensations of your breath.
Remember that regular practice is key to reaping the long-term benefits of breathing exercises. Incorporating them into your daily routine, especially during moments of stress or whenever you feel the need for mental relaxation, can help you feel better overall.