Why are therapists, psychologists, and every sort of coach and trainer always discussing the benefits of slow, deep, controlled and regular breathing?
What are they on about? Some answers are simple and entirely obvious—others—not so much. Of course, we need to breathe. Our bodies rely on a steady intake of oxygen and the expulsion of excess carbon dioxide.
The brain essentially regulates our breathing, but we do have more control over breathing than we think, and with some practice, we can turn breathing into an ally to fight stress, lower blood pressure, increase our energy levels, and revitalize ourselves!
Our bodies depend on the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide for good health. A positive mental state is very related to how our bodies are feeling, so it’s worth looking at how this balance affects our moods. Now, we’ve all heard the term “hyperventilation”.
That happens when a person takes many fast, shallow gulps of air, uncontrolled, using only the “top” of their lungs. There’s not enough time for blood to exchange waste products for oxygen, and carbon dioxide is rapidly depleted, sending the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance in the body out of kilter.
We need carbon dioxide, a fact often overlooked. Hyperventilation knocks that balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide all out of kilter. However, the old remedy of breathing into a bag isn’t a good idea. It, too, can contribute to the imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Let’s focus on the day-to-day benefits of deep, controlled breathing. Your body tissues crave oxygen, and our shallow breathing daily (unless we’re sporty or pro athletes) is enough to get us by. Still, we become lacklustre, our organs ratchet down into a “low energy state,” blood sugar/insulin transformation slows, and overall, the body slows down.
Slow, deep breathing, or diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, engages the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic and abdominal cavities. When the diaphragm contracts, the lungs expand, pulling air in. Deep breathing has been associated with numerous health benefits, including stress reduction, lower blood pressure, and improved focus.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to slow, deep breathing:
Sit comfortably with your back straight, or lie flat on your back. Ensure your environment is calm and free from distractions.
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. This will help you feel the movement and ensure you’re breathing deeply.
Close Your Eyes (optional): This can help minimize distractions and focus on your breath.
Inhale Through Your Nose:
Take a slow, deep breath through your nose.
As you breathe in, allow your abdomen to rise. The hand on your stomach should move upwards, while the hand on your chest should remain relatively still. This ensures you’re engaging your diaphragm.
Hold Your Breath:
After inhaling, pause and hold your breath for a count of 2 to 4 seconds.
Exhale Slowly Through Your Mouth:
Open your mouth slightly.
Exhale slowly and completely, allowing your abdomen to fall. Again, the hand on your abdomen should move inwards (fall), and the hand on your chest should remain mostly still.
Optionally, you can exhale with pursed lips (as if blowing out a candle) to better control the exhalation.
After exhaling, pause for another count of 2 to 4 seconds before inhaling again.
Continue this pattern for several minutes: slow inhale, pause, slow exhale, pause.
Focus on Your Breath:
As you continue to breathe, try to keep your mind focused on the sensation of your breathing.
If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath without judgment.
Gradually Increase Duration:
As you become more practised, you can extend the duration of your inhales, holds, and exhales. For example, you might inhale for a count of 6, hold for a count of 3, exhale for a count of 6, and then pause for another count of 3.
Finish Your Session:
After several minutes of deep breathing, take a moment to notice how you feel.
Slowly open your eyes (if closed) and give yourself a minute or two before resuming your normal activities.
Engaging in slow, deep breathing daily or whenever you feel stressed or anxious can be beneficial. Over time, as you practice, it will become more natural, and you might find you can drop into this relaxed state more easily.