How to Introduce Deep Breathing into your Daily Routine
Stressors are all around us—busy schedules, conflict, challenging jobs, life changes, loss, illness—and sometimes we don’t even notice the effect stress has on us until something forces us to recognize it. Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and eating disorders are often clear signs that stress has taken a toll on an individual. While these mental health conditions are not caused by stress (they are caused by a variety of things including genetics, psychology, and an individual’s neurobiology), stress often exacerbates these conditions making them more likely to greatly disrupt an individual’s quality of life.
When individuals experience stress, the fight or flight response is activated. This physiological response is the body’s reaction when it believes it is in danger, threatened, or under attack. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot tell the difference between actual and perceived danger, so our body’s reaction to being confronted with a dangerous animal may be the same as its reaction to our friend telling us they have something serious that they want to talk to us about.
When we experience a fight or flight reaction, our bodies produce excess adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones is likely to make our heart rate increase, our bodies tense, and our palms sweat. In an extreme case, this reaction may spiral an individual into a full-blown panic attack, where an individual cannot seem to regain control over their body and mind. In less severe cases, individuals may experience a constant state of mild stress, which can result in a buildup of stress hormones. This ongoing stress can cause tension headaches, poor immune system functioning, mental health illnesses, high blood pressure, and an overall feeling of discomfort and disease.
Of course, in severe cases or when an individual is experiencing mental health concerns, it is important to see a licensed professional for specialized advice and treatment. Luckily, more mild cases can be controlled or dampened by using body-based defenses. In addition to using our breath to control current stress, engaging in a deep breathing or meditation practice daily can promote continued wellbeing and lessen the likelihood of developing stress-related illnesses.
Train Your Body by Practicing Daily
Like anything, using the breath to control negative emotions is more successful with continued practice and focus. By practicing breathing daily, in stressful and non-stressful situations, we can teach our body the skill. One easy schedule to abide by is to practice deep breathing when you wake up and right before you go to bed. This practice doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You can start this practice by doing only 10 deep breaths.
When you engage in deep breathing, it’s important to do it in a productive way. It’s recommended to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and turn your attention to only your breathing. Once settled, take ten deep breaths, aiming for a six-second inhale and six-second exhale. Additionally, some individuals find it beneficial to add breath-holding to this cycle, which is called box breathing. For this pattern, inhale for a count of six, hold for four seconds, exhale for six, and hold again for four. If your mind wanders, direct it back to your breath.
With these ten deep breaths, your body will start to enter a state of calm and relaxation. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and encourages a lower heart rate, lower anxiety, and a feeling of relaxation. However, this state is much like a muscle that needs to be repetitively trained to experience its full potential.
By practicing breathing daily, if we can, we can strengthen our relaxation muscle, making it easier to enter a relaxed state in the future. Think of it this way: every time we practice deep breathing, we are showing our body what a state of calm is. The more we practice this, the easier it will be to focus on our breath, tune out the noise, and enter a calm state. This practice will make relaxation more familiar, as our bodies are trained to expect and embrace it when we engage in focused breathing. The practiced, strong association will make deep breathing an easy tool to employ during times of stress, anxiety, and panic.
Types of Deep Breathing
Belly breathing. This type of breath practice is a great entry into using breath mindfully and with the purpose of relaxation. For this type of deep breathing, get comfortable and place one or both hands on your belly. Inhale to your stomach, your hands should raise, and exhale from your belly, your hands should lower. Repeat this for at least ten breaths to experience a benefit.
Box breathing. Box breathing is particularly helpful in alleviating fight or flight responses due to its pattern-based nature. For box breathing, get comfortable, close your eyes, and imagine a box or square. Each breath or hold corresponds with a side of the square and it’s recommended to start with a four-second pattern. To start, inhale for four seconds and imagine someone drawing the first side of your box. Then hold your breath for four seconds and imagine drawing the right side of the box. Exhale for four seconds and picture drawing the top side of your box. Then, hold your breath for four seconds and complete your box. Repeat this at least ten times to experience stress relief.
Wave breathing. This type of breath practice is great for those who find themselves distracted during other forms of breathing as its use of imagination may help calm the mind. To start, get comfortable and close your eyes. Inhale and imagine a wave washing over your toes. Exhale as the wave washes down. Inhale and imagine the wave coming up to your ankles. Exhale. Inhale the wave towards your shins. Exhale. Repeat this progression until the wave has encompassed your entire body. This practice is particularly useful in promoting sleep or alleviating tension, frustration, or anger.
No matter what type of breath practice you choose, make sure it is one that works for you that you can practice regularly. Remember that practicing under times of low stress will increase the likelihood that you can successfully use your breath to control your emotions during times of high stress, anxiety, or panic. Individuals often find great comfort and lowered stress by practicing ten deep breathes multiple times throughout the day. And remember, in times of high stress, turn your focus inward toward your breath and use deep breathing to quell your negative thoughts. It may take time to work, so have patience and stick with it!
If you are experiencing high stress, anxiety, panic, depression, or an eating disorder, it’s important that you reach out for professional help in addition to practicing natural relaxation methods. By getting additional support, your quality of life will increase and your stress may decrease. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, connect with The Emily Program, a nationally recognized eating disorder treatment center. You can find The Emily Program online or by calling 1-888-364-5977.