Recently, trying to get to the airport in Montenegro, I had a minor epiphany about deep breathing and its link to stress. I was stuck in a traffic jam, late for my flight and going nowhere. The cars in front of me were crawling towards a long tunnel that runs through the mountains. It is badly maintained and the traffic was down to one lane due to long overdue repairs. I braced myself as I entered the tunnel. The authorities have not installed proper ventilators to clear the air, so it is always thick with fumes.
I remembered, as usual, to hold my breath to avoid inhaling the air pollution and was struck, as I had that thought, by the fact that I was barely breathing at all anyway. The stress of the situation (my lateness and the unpleasantness of the traffic jam), meant I was breathing really shallowly.
The stress connection
The connection between stress and deep breathing is long established. Most of us take our breath entirely for granted. Breathing is just something that your body does all by itself. But as my example shows, this isn’t always the case. There’s a lot you can improve on simply by paying attention to it. By retraining yourself to breathe more deeply, you can affect your health dramatically.
Every part of your body needs oxygen to function. When you breathe properly, you use your diaphragm to suck air deep into your lungs (inhalation) and then push it out again (exhalation). When you don't, breathing instead from the shallow upper regions of your chest, you upset your oxygen/carbon dioxide balance, stressing your whole system and triggering physical symptoms like anxiety, sleeplessness, exhaustion or depression. If you suffer from any of these, rather than immediately popping a pill, first try a little work on your breathing.
Physically, apart from providing the oxygen we need to survive, breathing calms the autonomic nervous system, which regulates many of your bodily functions. Proper deep breathing is therefore effectively the controller of your usual master control system.
A barometer for emotions
Your breath is also a barometer of your emotional state. Have you noticed that when you are happy and peaceful your breathing is slow, steady and deep? Are you feeling stressed, depressed or exhausted? If so, your breathing may be erratic, shallow and hardly there at all. Angry and exasperated? Your breath will be fast and furious as your heart frantically pounds, signalling a desperate effort to distribute oxygen and blood quickly.
As the flow of your breath is an indicator of what is going on inside you, so certain breathing techniques can be used to alter those feelings. By controlling your breath in specific ways, you can shift both your emotions and your physical state. You simply need to become more aware of what your breath is telling you. Watch it throughout the day. Observe its shifting rhythms – it’s a great way to gauge what causes you the greatest stress in your life. By learning and applying specific deep breathing techniques, you will be able to bring yourself back to a state of calm and relaxation that tells your body all is safe and well, allowing warning physical symptoms to disappear. Breathing exercises can reduce your blood pressure and your heart rate, as well as balancing levels of stress hormones.
Indian yogis and Tibetan mystics have been teaching breathing methods for centuries. When I visited Bhutan and the isolated monasteries of northern India twenty years ago, I noticed that all the young trainee monks practiced deep breathing for several hours each day. It was a fundamental pillar of their education. Pranayama, (which translates as 'extending the vital life force',) is yoga's breathing practise, and offers a range of techniques to suit every problem and every person. I go to a class at least once a week (though I struggle with the physical postures) and find the breathing exercises increase the clarity of my mind and my thinking, as well as my ability to stay in calm in the most stressful situations.
This is one of the easiest approaches to de-stressing yourself, and what's more it is entirely cost free. Here are three of the simplest exercises that you can do at home:
Exhale: a pre-sleep rebalancing technique
This is my favourite breathing exercise, and it's great to do late at night when your mind is whirring and sleep just won't come. It relaxes your whole body and eases stress.
- Lie down flat and place one hand face down on your chest and the other over your tummy button. Notice how you are breathing. Is your breath shallow, uneven or strained?
- Breathe slowly into your chest first, feeling that hand rising, and then deeper into your stomach, so the second hand rises too and your stomach expands out like a balloon.
- Then slowly and smoothly release all the air, and begin again.
- Do this for at least 10 breaths. It's that simple. I am usually asleep before I get to the end.
Alternate nostril breathing
This is a good way to focus your mind and reboot your energy levels. It is said to balance both hemispheres of your brain. It can be slightly confusing when you start and it’s easy to lose track of your rhythm, so try not to overthink the process. You use only the thumb and ring fingers of the right hand for the exercise.
Sit comfortably, making sure your spine is straight.
- Close your right nostril with your right thumb, and breathe in slowly through your left nostril.
- Then, with your right nostril still blocked, place your ring finger on your left nostril, blocking it as you release the right thumb from the right nostril and exhale.
- Next leave your hand as it is and inhale through the right nostril, then switch, placing your thumb over your right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril.
- Inhale slowly again through the left nostril. Hold both nostrils closed briefly and then release the air gently through your right nostril.
You may initially get confused with the flow between the two nostrils, but just remember that each time you breathe in, you switch sides. Keep going rhythmically for 5 minutes or more.
So long, stress
This exercise is particularly good for insomnia and anxiety and relaxes the central nervous system. Best done at night before bed.
- Lie flat and take a few long, deep breaths with your hand on your stomach, noticing it rise and fall as your breath moves slowly in and out.
- Start to count the length of each in-breath and then each out-breath, and match them till they are equally balanced.
- Once you have managed this for several breaths, begin to increasethe length of the out-breath, and keep going, slowly, until it is twice as long as the in-breath. So, if you are breathing in for 3 seconds, try to get your exhalation to no longer than 6 seconds. Any amount of time longer than 4 seconds (and no more than 6 seconds) triggers a calming effect.
- Gradually return to normal breathing and finish the session with 8 relaxed breaths.