Breathing for Stress Relief: One Breath at a Time for Better Mental Health

breathing and mental health

In today’s world, we face a great amount of uncertainty. This uncertainty not only affects our personal and professional lives, but also impacts our mental health. It causes stress, feelings of anxiousness and many other mental health challenges.Several studies have shown that breathing exercises are one of the most powerful tools that can help us cope with stress.

There is considerable scientific evidence available which proves the role breathing exercises can play in improving our mental health.
Illustration showing a woman inhaling through her nose and exhaling from her mouth
Mindful breathing is one of the best hacks to counter stress

However, most people are not fully aware of the relation between the brain and breathing. While breathing, most of us don’t use our lungs to their full extent. Moreover, people tend to develop unhealthy breathing patterns and shallow breathing habits which can increase blood pressure and heart rate.

In this article we explore the benefits of breathing exercises, the different types of breathing, and their importance. So, without further ado, read on to understand how something we do as long as we live, can be practised more effectively.

The relation between the brain and breathing

“Take a deep breath” is common advice we often give to people. We've been giving and getting this advice to breathe deeply to calm ourselves down for ages. But do we know the actual reasoning behind this?

According to a study, when we control our breathing by counting breaths, it influences our brain’s emotional control region. In this study, participants were asked to focus on their breaths and count them attentively. And when they focused on their breathing, their brain activity (monitored by EEG) in the memory, emotions, and awareness region showed an organized pattern than the normal resting state.

Our breathing pattern impacts our brain activity

Another 2016 study showed that our breathing rhythm influences the electrical activity in our brain. And this electrical activity affects our memory. In short, it controls how well we remember.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Neurophysiology, the insula and anterior cingulate cortex are responsible for influencing our moment-to-moment awareness. And when we accurately track our breath, both the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex of our brain stay active.

Further, deep and controlled breathing is effective in reducing stress. It turns off the stress responses in our body, relaxes tense muscles, and decreases blood pressure. In short, slowing down and paying attention to our breathing can play a huge role in both our physical and mental health.

Different breathing techniques

There are certain types of breathing practices which have been found to be particularly effective. In this section we would like to elaborate on some of them.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as ‘belly breathing’, can relieve us from stress and anxiety. During diaphragmatic breathing, our body engages the diaphragm, stomach, and abdominal muscles fully.

Illustration of a person practising belly breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing is especially helpful to slow the heartbeat and stabilize blood pressure

For diaphragmatic breathing, one has to relax their shoulders and neck. That's why lying down on a flat surface helps to find a comfortable position while practising this breathing technique.

A person can start practicing belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing by following these steps:

  • First, place your hands on your belly
  • Breathe in through the nose until the belly rises
  • Breathe out through the mouth
  • You may also place your hands on your belly to feel the rise and fall
Breathing out through the mouth is particularly relaxing and is done in belly breathing

Mindful breathing

Mindful breathing requires full concentration on our breath. Many people also consider this breathing technique to be meditation. One can practice mindful breathing to combat anxiety, stress, insomnia, and high blood pressure.

Mindful breathing is extremely simple to perform. One has to simply focus on one’s natural breathing rhythm. There's no need to change the simple in and out breathing process while practicing mindful breathing.

Young man wearing casual sweater standing over isolated pink background relax and smiling with eyes closed doing and doing mindful breathing
One can practise mindful breathing anywhere

One can follow these steps to perform mindful breathing properly:

  • It's crucial to find a peaceful and comfortable place to avoid any kind of distraction while breathing
  • Sit in a comfortable position or lie down to practise mindful breathing
  • Start breathing while deeply focusing on the body and mind

Pranayama breathing

Pranayama is actually a branch of yoga. The word itself comes from Sanskrit. ‘Prana’ means life force, while ‘ayama’ implies stretching or extending. Thus, ‘pranayama’ means control of breath or the extension of life force.

In yoga, pranayama is used as a breathing exercise. It is considered to be able to clear the mind and fuel energy into our life.

Regular practice of pranayama can help us to gain greater control over our physical and mental health. The goal of this set of breathing exercises is to connect our body and mind and to promote mindfulness.

Man practicing alternate nostril breathing technique with personal instructor at yoga class. Guy sitting in sukhasana yoga pose. Pranayama concept.
Pranayama is really the science of breathing and has several physical and mental benefits for all-round health

Pranayama breathing has different techniques, such as kapalabhati pranayama, nadi shodhana, bhramari, and so on. Each technique has specific physical and mental benefits.

Regular 20-30 minutes of pranayama can make a huge difference to our overall health and well-being.

Here is how you can practise bhastrika pranayama which is one of the easiest exercises.

  • Sit in a comfortable place and relaxed posture
  • Inhale deeply through the nose with force and sound, and then exhale through the nose again with force and sound
  • With each inhalation and exhalation, focus on the breathing; do this at least for one minute

Box breathing

Box breathing or square breathing is a form of slow breathing that is extremely helpful in reducing stress and improving concentration.

For best results, one should sit straight in a comfortable position. This allows one to breathe easily and more comfortably.

Here are the basic steps to practise box breathing:

  • Breathe in while you count up to four, and fill the lungs with fresh air
  • Hold your breath for a count of four
  • Again count to four while breathing out
  • Hold for another four seconds and repeat the process
Infographic showing box breathing method.
The steps for box breathing

Deep breathing

Deep breathing is a great way of calming oneself down in stressful situation. Deep breathing slows down the heart rate and makes us immediately calmer.

Image shows a close shot of a woman with her eyes shut, deep breathing and relaxing.
Deep breathing can help counter stress wherever we are

Follow these easy steps to practise deep breathing:

  • Sit comfortably in a relaxed position
  • Inhale slowly through your nose and feel the air fill up your lungs and belly
  • Exhale slowly again through the nose
  • Repeat the process for at least 5-10 minutes

You can also add an affirmation or a chant while you breathe.

Benefits of practising breathing exercises regularly

Regular Breathing Exercise to improve mantal health

We all breathe by default. However, when we practise it using one of the techniques described above and breathe mindfully, it has very different benefits.

Breath is considered to be life energy in yoga; the focused play of breathe energy is believed to yield different kinds of results and advantages.

Reduces stress and anxiety

Regular 20-30 minutes of box breathing, mindful breathing, or deep breathing exercises help reduce stress and anxiety. Practicing deep breathing increases the oxygen intake in our body. This dose of oxygen helps stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, calms the body and mind, and diverts our attention from stress.

Improves sleep quality

Practising breathing improves the quality of our sleep over a period of time. This is the result of being less stressed and calmer as a result of mindful breathing practice.

Improves cognitive functions

Regular breathing exercises can improve our cognitive functions. Practising mindful breathing or diaphragmatic breathing strengthens our power of concentration. Studies have shown that when breathing exercises are done consistently, they can enhance our decision-making abilities and memory power effectively.

Improves energy levels

Breathing exercises are one of the most natural energy boosters. As mentioned earlier, breathing increases the absorption and supply of oxygen. And oxygen helps to increase energy levels by maintaining the functions of the cells in our body.

Improves immunity

We can use diaphragmatic breathing and other forms of pranayama to strengthen our immune system. These specific breathing exercises stimulate the immune system by strengthening our cells, tissues, glands, and organs.

Pranayama in fact has been proven to help release hypertension, anxiety, and depression, and also remove heart blockages. It also strengthens the chest muscles and improves the overall digestion system.

Wrapping up

There is more than adequate scientific research that shows that breathing exercises have the power to improve our overall physical and mental health.

Image of a woman lying with her eyes closed on a pillow and smiling. She is practising mindful breathing.
Breathing exercises increase our overall oxygen intake and calm our minds

However, for best results, we should include breathing exercises in our daily routine. We can start with simple doable exercises and then progress to more complex techniques which have more specific benefits.

It’s also important to remember to turn to our breath in moments on anxiety and stress as a means to calm us down immediately. However as always, for advice on coping with any mental health illness, it is advisable to consult a professional.

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Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.