Simple breathing exercises to help improve your mood
Does your body automatically clench when you’re under stress or angry, and you just want to be able to relax? Have you thought about using simple breathing exercises to help improve your mood? Yes, just breathing. As simple as that. No need for any specialised equipment or even a yoga mat.
In my previous article Want to address and reduce your stress I wrote about how breathing can reduce your stress. In fact, because I believe in it so passionately, I’ve mentioned breathing exercises in many posts. Not only is it free and also comparably easy to practice, it’s readily available to us all.
Of course, I’ve had people frown or tut when I mention that simple breathing exercises help improve your mood. I’ve heard it said “It doesn’t work for me,” or “Nope, I’ve tried that and didn’t get any benefit from it.” And, “If I hear about breathing exercises one more time, I’m going to punch the hell out of someone.” And that’s okay.
Because I already know the evidence-based exercises and the benefits, and I’ve used various breathing techniques successfully for years. These have helped me to relax when my shoulders are up round my neck. They’ve calmed me down before I’ve swung for the fourth idiot who’s bashed my ankle bone with their bloody shopping trolley. But I suppose the best thing is that breathing exercises have stopped me going into full panic mode, many times over.
Breathing in the news
There were Facebook invites to a free 30 breathing session to help people breathe through Covid. I read that Wellness guru, ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof’s app encourages quick, deep breathing followed by long periods of holding your breath. I saw James Nestor’s book Breathe: The new science of a lost art, being discussed on morning t.v. earlier this week.
Now breathing isn’t exactly new, I know. Buddhists, native Americans and Hindus, together with ancient Chinese scholars believed that proper breathing was essential to good health. However, what’s new is that Western science is now proving that almost everything can be improved by correct breathing techniques. Stress reduction, emotion control, better moods, insomnia, and improved attention—can all be gained by certain breathing techniques.
Breathing techniques influence both physiological factors (by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) and psychological factors (by diverting attention from thoughts).
How do breathing techniques work
Before understanding physiological benefits of deep breathing, we have to understand how our bodies responds to stress. Like many of us have experienced, when we’re angry, upset, worried, or anxious, we can feel it. Our heart starts to beat faster, we might feel dizzy, and blood rushes toward our heart and your brain.
According to Dr. Tania Elliott, the system responsible for this is your sympathetic nervous system, better known as your “fight or flight response.” She goes on to say, “Evolutionarily, we’d only develop this stress response if we were being attacked. But what’s happened over time is that we’re experiencing so much chronic, low-level stress each day. Because of that, we now have this low-level activation of the stress response all the time.”
There are certain stressors that might not seem hugely overwhelming on their own; i.e. long hours or whining colleagues. There are also those major sources of stress, like separation, divorce, or job loss. So, when our sympathetic nervous system fills up with all that cortisol and adrenaline, we don’t feel so great.
And this is where the deep breathing comes in
To help explain how your body’s relaxation response can oppose its stress response, Esther Sternberg, uses a car metaphor. “If you want to “reduce” your stress response, in which you directly combat the stressor, that’s like “taking your foot off the gas.” Instead, Sternberg recommends stopping this response — i.e., putting your foot on the brakes — as it’s much more efficient.
“A much more effective and quicker way of interrupting that stress response is to turn on the vagus nerve, which in turn powers up the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep-breathing turns on the vagus nerve enough that it acts as a brake on the stress response.”
The vagus nerve, along with stimulating your body’s relaxation response, can inhibit inflammation, slow down your heart, and even help you make memories.
Elliott writes, “Some EEGs have actually shown that deep breathing can lead to an increase in alpha brain-waves. These are typically present when you’re feeling relaxed, like when you’re meditating or even daydreaming.
But deep breathing can do more than just stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system in the midst of a stressful moment. It can prevent your stress response from overacting in the first place.
When starting out, put aside two minutes, once or twice a day, to slow down your breath. In for four counts, out for eight counts.
Also, be aware that there are different exercises for different purposes. Wim Hof suggests, breathing more quickly to stimulate your nervous system. However, others believe that breathing more slowly helps to calm us down. This is why slow, deep nose breathing is good for anxiety.
Dr. Andrew Weil teaches the popular 4-7-8 breathing technique, which he believes can help with the following:
- reducing anxiety
- helping a person get to sleep
- managing cravings
- controlling or reducing anger responses
Weil says “Before starting the breathing pattern, adopt a comfortable sitting position. (For me this is sitting upright, palms on your lap, and legs uncrossed.) Place the tip of the tongue on the tissue right behind the top front teeth.
To use the 4-7-8 technique, focus on the following breathing pattern:
- empty the lungs of air – by exhaling through your mouth, as far as you can
- breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds
- hold the breath for a count of 7 seconds
- exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a “whoosh” sound, for 8 seconds
- repeat the cycle up to 4 times
My go-to breathing exercise
Evidence-based breathing technique like Slow Diaphragmatic Breathing:
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor, legs uncrossed. You can lie down if you wish.
- Place your unclenched palms comfortably on your belly.
- Breathe in slowly and calmly. Fill up the belly with a normal breath. Try not to breathe in too heavily. Your hands should move up when you breathe in, as if you are filling up a balloon. Avoid lifting the shoulders as you inhale; rather, breathe into the stomach.
- Breathe out slowly to the count of “5”. Try to slow down the rate of the exhale. After the exhale, hold for 2-3 seconds before inhaling again.
- Work to continue to slow down the pace of the breath.
- Practice this for about 10 minutes.
This works best if you practice at least twice each day for 10 minutes each time. Try to find a regular time to practice this every day. The more you practice, the easier you’ll find it to use when you most need it.
Because all these breathing techniques are evidence-based, and safe and easy to use, scientific validation might result in their being more frequently recommended and practiced. Of course, they’re not an “all singing, all dancing” cure for everything, but don’t be surprised if your GP starts offering you breathing therapy any times soon.
I’m currently laid up on my sofa with flu, but I still practice my breathing exercises, and they’ve certainly helped me breathe easier today.
Over to you
I’m an advocate for anything that helps reduce some of my pains, relieves my anxiety, de-stresses me, and improves my mood. Breathing exercises are my first go-to treatment in my mental health toolbox. What’s your experience? Did breathing exercises help you in any way? Have you practiced a breathing technique 2-3 times a day for up to six months? I’m looking forward to any comments, your questions and any constructive criticism.