Some people go throughout their entire day without ever really noticing that they are breathing. Some go their whole lives. This is not to say that we are not entirely aware that our breathing is what keeps us alive, but there is a difference between merely breathing and being aware of your breath, just as there is a difference between being alive and living well.
Once you become more in control of your breath, you can become more in control of your life. The point of meditation and deep breathing is not only to help you become more conscious of the breath; they are tools that teach you to be aware of situations where you could use a little more breathwork. Through meditation and deep breathing, you learn to notice when both your mind and body need deeper, slower, and less shallow breaths.
Has there ever been a time in your life where you were anxious or stressed about something, and your heart began to beat quickly, and your breathing became faster and shallower? Well, if you are new to meditation and deep breathing, you may not have been conscious of your breathing, but you were aware enough to know that whatever you were going through was not a comfortable feeling.
The reason that you began to take shorter breaths was that you were feeling anxious. This is because everything that goes on in the mind impacts the body, and this process also works the other way around. So, if you were to take shorter breaths, you would likely begin to feel more anxious. This is just to help you understand a little bit about your mind-body connection so you can better grasp how meditation and deep breathing work to manage stress and anxiety.
How exactly does deep breathing impact the body to reduce stress and anxiety?
While most of us tend to think of ‘stress’ as a negative thing, the intended purpose of stress is to protect us. In harmful or potentially dangerous situations, our stress is what keeps us alert and kicks our senses into overdrive if we need them to be. The mode that stress puts our bodies into is called “fight or flight” mode, and for us to be more alert, the mind tells the body to increase both our blood pressure and our heart rate, which causes our breathing to pick up too.
So, what happens when we experience too much or unnecessary stress? Based on what we’ve learned about stress so far, you may guess that it’s not the healthiest thing for your blood pressure and heart rates to be up all the time – in which case, you’ve guessed correctly. The other issue with becoming easily stressed is that it causes anxiety too, and the more we feel this way, the harder it all becomes to control – it’s a vicious cycle. Stress and anxiety lead to shallow and quick breathing, which then leads to further stress and anxiety.
Luckily through deep breathing, we can control much of this. When we breathe deeply, we activate what is called the parasympathetic nervous system. You can think of this as the opposite of “fight or flight” mode and refer to it as “rest and digest” mode. Each time you take a deep inhalation, it stimulates something called the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that carries a lot of signals between your organs, digestive system, and your brain.
So, by stimulating this nerve, deep breathing can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and, as a result, calm your breath. Through deep breathing, you can relieve both stress and anxiety by starting with the physical body to address what is happening in the mind. Sometimes the physical body (the breath) is the perfect place to start, especially when you struggle with busy or anxious thoughts that often feel out of your control.
Is meditation the same thing as deep breathing?
Meditation and deep breathing both have similar benefits for stress and anxiety, but not all meditation practices are breath-focused or involve deep breathing. The overall purpose of meditation is to be aware of your breath and your thoughts to help you feel calmer and more focused. So, in a way, it is as if deep breathing is more of a physical body approach to managing stress and anxiety, while meditation is often more of a mental practice.
How else do meditation and deep breathing help with stress and anxiety?
One of the other main reasons why meditation and deep breathing are effective is that both help you practice being present. Being present is key to managing feelings like stress and anxiety, along with other mental health issues. If you have ever found yourself dwelling on something that already happened or worrying over something in the future, it is likely that this mindset or thought process caused you to feel anxious or stressed – or both. So, the benefit of deep breathing and meditation in terms of those unhelpful feelings and thoughts is that they help quiet and release them. Meditation and breathwork both help direct our focus to the breath instead of what is happening in the mind.
If you are looking for breath-focused meditations and exercises to try, the following techniques are great for managing stress and anxiety:
The 4-7-8 Technique
Sit on your couch, bed, yoga mat, or a cushion, and close your eyes or keep a soft gaze.
Count to yourself as you inhale for a count of four. Hold your breath at the top of your inhale for seven counts. Then, exhale slowly for eight counts.
If you find these counts to be too long to start, don’t worry. The goal is to focus your mind and relax, not struggling to suck in more air or having to gasp for it. If you need to, try another counting pattern, such as all counts of four.
Ocean Breath or Victorious Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama)
Ujjayi (pronounced oo-jah-yee) is sometimes referred to as ocean’s breath because if you’re doing it correctly, you will create sounds that are similar to ocean waves when you exhale.
Take a slightly deeper inhalation than usual, then close your mouth.
Exhale out of the nose as you constrict the muscle in your throat.
Think about creating that ocean wave sound. It also helps some people to think about this as the “Darth Vader breath” – if you are a Star Wars fan, that is.
Alternate-Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama)
Alternate-nostril breathing is a great technique to help calm you down by giving you something to focus on, thereby decreasing your distraction and promoting a sense of control. On a physical level, this breathing technique impacts the circulatory system by way of the nervous system.
Here’s how to practice it:
Take one deep inhale, then before you exhale, plug your left nostril with your fourth finger and exhale out of the right nostril.
Take a long inhale through your right nostril, and once you’ve reached the top of your inhale, place your thumb over your right nostril and exhale slowly out of the left nostril.
After your first full exhalation, inhale through your left nostril, then close it off at the top of your inhalation, then lift your thumb from your right nostril and exhale out of your right nostril.
This technique can sound and feel a little tricky at first, but you will pick up on the pattern once you get going.
If you feel ready to start incorporating meditation and deep breathing into your day, remember that it’s okay if the benefits don’t seem obvious right away. These practices can take some time, but any awareness of the breath is better than no awareness. If you experience busy, stressful, or anxious thoughts as you breathe or meditate, don’t create more stress by criticizing yourself. Simply return your focus to your breath whenever you are ready.
Luis is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who graduated from Long Beach State University with a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology (2015). He also has a Bachelors's degree in Child and Adolescent Development with an emphasis on Public Policy from San Francisco State University (2011). Luis has over 9 years of experience working with children and families both in education and mental health. Previously, Luis worked for a non-profit agency in San Francisco, CA providing mental health consultation in early head start programs and SFUSD pre-schools. Currently, Luis works at Kaiser in San Francisco providing mental health services.
His therapeutic interests include working with Trauma, the LGBTQ community, Children, Families, Couples, and POC. His personal interests include; Films, Reading, Writing, Art, Travelling, Disney, and Food. He is also a recipient of the California State Stipend award (2015). PsychoSocial is part of Luis' dedication to mental health and an example of his passion to educate others. Luis hopes that through PsychoSocial he will be able to help in the fight to end the stigma around mental illness.