“Take a deep breath.” We’ve all heard this old adage at some point, but you may not know that it is grounded in some really solid science. Deep breathing is one of the best tools we all have at our disposal to center the body and mind and regain composure. You can do it anytime, anywhere, it is completely free and easy to master. While many ancient cultures have extolled the virtues of deep breathing for centuries, modern scientists are now shedding light on how this fundamental technique can almost instantly benefit your body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes it feels like we’re not in control of the way our body and brain react to a situation, but deep breathing reminds us that our behaviors can have profound influence over our heart rate, blood pressure, and mood.
Breathing is a unique bodily function in that it can be both voluntary and involuntary. That is to say; you don't always have to pay attention to the fact that you are breathing (otherwise sleeping would be difficult!). However, if you choose to do so, you can change the rate, depth, and pattern of respiration with minimal effort. I'd bet that just by reading these last sentences you've started to notice to your own breath and maybe even breathe a little more deeply. Choosing to do so can have numerous health benefits. Deep breathing can reduce stress, increase focus, lower heart rate, and blood pressure, and even boost your immune system! Many people find they can use deep breathing like a life raft when they're feeling overwhelmed and sinking into a spiral of anxiety, anger, fear, or other overpowering emotions. It can help keep you from falling further into the unwanted feelings and buoy you back to the surface where you can regain composure and control of your emotions.
The term "deep breathing" refers to the voluntary, conscious act of intentionally engaging in full, slow, controlled inhalations and exhalations in repetition. When we say "full" breaths, we are referring to what some call "belly breathing" or abdominal breathing wherein the stomach sticks out. This deep breathing is contrasted with shallower, less full breaths from the upper chest that often accompanies feelings of stress or anxiety. Deep breathing has been emphasized by many cultures throughout history as an effective self-regulating technique. The yogis call it "pranayama" and the Buddha extolled its virtues as part of the path to enlightenment.
You probably know that when you breathe in, your body absorbs oxygen through your lungs and into your bloodstream. You also probably know that when you breathe out, you expel carbon dioxide into the surrounding atmosphere. That oxygen that is carried into your body through the lungs is quite literally vital to every organ in your body. We all know that without oxygen, you would suffocate and die. What you might not know is that even if you're getting enough oxygen to "get by" your body can benefit from even more oxygen. Often, when we breathe without paying attention to it, we are breathing from the chest, rather than from the diaphragm. When you breathe fully and deeply from the diaphragm (also called diaphragmatic breathing), you have what is called "full oxygen exchange." That means you are getting more of the carbon dioxide out and as much oxygen as possible in.
On top of the perks of full oxygen exchange, deep breathing activates a part of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. Without getting too bogged down in the details, there are two branches of our involuntary or autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The first, the sympathetic nervous system is often called the “fight or flight” system as it is responsible for the release of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine which amp up your ability to fight or flee when faced with a threatening situation. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system as it is responsible for activities such as digestion, salivation, and sexual arousal, among others. The parasympathetic nervous system, when activated, actually reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. A useful analogy is to think of your autonomic nervous system like a car wherein the sympathetic nervous system is the gas, and the parasympathetic nervous system is the brake. Because these two systems "fight or flight" and "rest and digest" directly oppose one another in the body, increasing parasympathetic activity and thus activating your relaxation response (by doing something like deep breathing) can help to alleviate or turn down the effects of the stress response system (sympathetic nervous system activation) and get you back to a state of balance.
Deep breathing can have amazing benefits for your body, brain, and mood both in the short and long term. On top of reducing stress, increasing alertness, and lowering heart rate and blood pressure, deep breathing has been shown to boost immunity in preliminary studies. Some studies suggest that it can also boost energy, improve mental focus, release muscle tension, and maybe even increase the secretion of anti-aging hormones! Deep, controlled breathing has also been shown to be effective in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, depression, ADHD, and asthma. It is a fantastic tool for treatment because unlike medications, it comes with no side effects, it is entirely free, can be self-administered at the exact time needed, and its effects can be immediate. There are lots of ways to incorporate deep breathing into your life and if you need a little guidance or help there are many apps and videos online that can lead you through breathing exercises or guide you in meditation, mindfulness or yoga, all of which incorporate deep breathing into their practices. So the next time you find yourself getting overwhelmed and you feel your body hitting the gas, just take a deep breath and tap the brakes.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Beri, K. (2016). Breathing to younger skin: 'reversing the molecular mechanism of skin aging with yoga.' Future Science OA, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.4155/fsoa-2016-0015
Desai, R., Tailor, A., & Bhatt, T. (2015). Effects of yoga on brain waves and structural activation: A review. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 21(2), 112–118. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2015.02.002
Does Deep Breathing Really Do Anything? (2018, February 9). from Neurocore website: https://www.neurocorecenters.com/blog/does-deep-breathing-really-do-anything
How Breathing Calms Your Brain. (n.d.). from Psychology Today website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/neuronarrative/201712/how-breathing-calms-your-brain
News, N. (2016, December 7). Rhythm of Breathing Affects Memory and Fear. from Neuroscience News website: http://neurosciencenews.com/memory-fear-breathing-5699/
News, N. (2017, March 31). How Slow Breathing Induces Tranquility. from Neuroscience News website: http://neurosciencenews.com/tranquility-slow-breathing-6317/
Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response - Harvard Health. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
Your Breath is Your Brain’s Remote Control. (2017, February 16). from Mindful website: http://www.mindful.org/breath-brains-remote-control/