What do stubbing your toe, getting cut off in traffic and worrying about an ill friend have in common?
All these experiences cause us to hold or restrict our breath. When this happens, you are likely not even aware of it, but your breathing becomes shallow…and too little oxygen flows to the body and the brain. You may suffer from poor concentration, memory problems and low energy—or even a panic attack, as shallow breathing triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response.
On the other hand, deep, purposeful breathing can have an incredibly positive impact on your well-being. It stimulates the parasympathetic part of your involuntary nervous system, slowing a rapid heartbeat and lowering blood pressure. And now, there’s even more proof to back up its benefits.
Recent scientific evidence: Deep breathing, as practiced in meditation, has been linked to a lengthening of people’s telomeres (the protective caps on chromosomes that impact aging and longevity), according to research conducted at the University of California, San Francisco.
The benefits don’t stop there. Deep breathing has also been shown to help with the following…*
When we hurt, our muscles often tighten up and we breathe shallowly. In addition to depriving the brain and body of oxygen, this increases inflammation, slowing the healing process and triggering pain-promoting anxiety.
What helps: Combining deep breathing with positive imagery can relax muscles in the affected area, which also decreases inflammation and pain.
What to do: Find a quiet spot, and sit or lie in a comfortable position. Picture a place where you feel calm. Close your eyes and begin breathing using a “1:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio.” For example, on the inhale, you can count to four and breathe in a feeling of calm, cooling energy…on the exhale, you can count to eight and imagine the painful area getting smaller and smaller and leaving your body.
The use of deep breathing with “body scans” (an exercise designed to create awareness of the body) has been shown to improve sleep in older adults—half of whom report sleep troubles.
What to do: While lying comfortably in bed, begin the same 1:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio described above—long, slow exhalations stimulate the brain’s vagus nerve, which tells the body: “It’s time to relax.”
To begin the body scan, concentrate on your feet—wiggle and scrunch your toes, then relax them and notice how comfortable your feet feel simply resting on the bed. Move on to your ankles, perhaps rolling them in circles…then your calves…knees…thighs, etc.
Remember: Keep breathing deeply, and focus on how relaxed and heavy each body part feels, allowing it to become soft and limp like a cooked noodle. You should be asleep before you reach your head! If you’re feeling particularly tense, you can tighten each body part before relaxing it.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
For many people, stress can cause the amygdala, the region of the brain that processes danger signals, to activate the release of stress hormones that raise blood pressure.
What to do: Sit tall, with your head held straight, looking forward. Close your eyes or gaze at a single point straight ahead. Breathe in naturally…then exhale more slowly while silently repeating, “I let it go.” When your mind wanders, simply refocus on your breath and mantra. By practicing mindful breathing, you will learn to become less reactive to daily stressors.
Extra move: Gratitude breath. As you breathe, focus on a person, place or thing for which you are thankful. Research has linked the positive energy and uplifting mood that results from gratitude with a healthier heart rate.
This breathing technique activates the parasympathetic nervous system while rewiring the brain for positivity. Consistent practice will heighten your awareness of negative thinking so it will be easier to shift your focus away from sadness and pull yourself out of a downward spiral.
What to do: Breathe in for a count of four…breathe out slowly, counting to eight. Add a mantra that you say silently to yourself. Possibilities…
Inhale: In this moment. Exhale: I am OK.
Inhale: Peace. Exhale: Calm.
My advice: Whenever you can, do this exercise in a peaceful outdoor setting—nature has a calming, antidepressant effect.
*Unless noted otherwise, start with five minutes and work up to 15 to 20 minutes daily.