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When we encounter a dangerous situation, our body enters what is known as the ‘fight or flight mode’. This is the stress response of our body and it has its roots in our evolution. The natural stress response of our bodies can help us navigate potentially life-threatening events. However, the problem arises when our body is constantly in the ‘fight or flight’ mode. Chronic stress can suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses and infections. It can also lead to high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression. Deep breathing is one relaxation technique that can help us deal with the stresses of everyday life in a better manner, thus mitigating the harmful effects of chronic stress.
Also known as abdominal breathing or belly breathing, deep breathing is a relaxation technique that has several health benefits. Typically, we don’t pay a lot of attention to how we breathe. By focussing on taking deep, long breaths, we ensure our cells get more oxygen – one of the primary functions of breathing. More oxygenated cells translate to higher energy, lower stress, and other benefits, which we talk about later in this article.
In order to understand how deep breathing works and how it is beneficial for our bodies, we must first understand the mechanism of breathing, itself. When you inhale air from outside, your diaphragm drops downward. Diaphragm is a muscle in your body that is between the chest and abdomen.
As your diaphragm drops down, it makes rooms for your lungs as they expand with air. When you exhale, your diaphragm pushes upward, against the lungs. This action helps to expel carbon dioxide from the lungs. Now, your lungs have several blood vessels that are responsible for carrying oxygen to the cells in your body.
When you are primarily taking shallow breaths, a lot of the blood vessels in the lungs don’t get their entire share of oxygen. Cells in your body need oxygen to carry out several chemical reactions, which, in turn, produce energy. Respiration also acts as an important buffer to regulate pH in your body. Hemoglobin, which is the primary protein in red blood cells, plays a part in regulating your body’s pH. Thus, improper respiration can, potentially, shift blood pH levels.
Deep breathing works on two fronts – the physical front and the mental front. The physical act of taking deep, long breaths delivers more oxygen to your cells, which is beneficial. However, deep breathing techniques also goad you to focus on your breaths, which can be useful for mindfulness training.
Several emerging studies on the benefits of deep breathing have linked it to reduced levels of stress and anxiety. For instance, a 2017 study involving 38 volunteers found encouraging evidence that deep breathing techniques, when practiced regularly, can improve mood and lower stress. The study also reported on objective parameters such as heart rate and cortisol levels in saliva. According to the research, there is strong correlation between deep breathing and lower heart rats and salivary cortisol levels. Cortisol levels in saliva are thought to be important biomarkers for stress. Lower levels of cortisol in saliva suggest a calmer state.
Other significant benefits of deep breathing include:
Deep breathing can regulate the response of the autonomic nervous system of the body. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating several bodily functions such as digestion, urination, sexual arousal, and heart rate. There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic branch is what controls stress-related hormones, such as cortisol.
According to research, deep breathing can help regulate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system. This, in turn, leads to lower heart rate and a calmer sympathetic system. A calmer sympathetic system translates to lower levels of stress. A calmer nervous system has also been linked to better digestion.
Stress and immunity are correlated. A growing body of studies has found that stress can adversely affect the immune response of the body. It does so by affecting the production of interferon gamma, a cytokine that modulates various immune responses in the body. Stress also affects the production of T-cells in the body, which fight off infections. By lowering stress, deep breathing can boost your immune system.
The lymphatic system of your body is a circulatory system independent of the blood circulation system. The main function of the lymphatic system is to carry lymph to various parts of the body. Lymph is a fluid that carries white blood cells and helps in fighting any kind of infections and viruses. The lymphatic system in your body is also responsible for getting rid of abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. Thus, it plays a role in fighting or preventing cancer.
However, unlike the blood circulatory system, the lymph system is not pumped by the heart. In other words, lymphatic fluid does not move due to the beating of your heart. Instead, it relies on other ways to move through your body. One of these ways is deep breathing.
By practicing deep breathing exercises, you allow better movement of lymphatic fluid through your body. This can translate to better disease-fighting capabilities, including the ability to fight cancer. Studies are also ongoing about the correlation between the lymphatic system and respiratory diseases.
Deep breathing is an important part of mindfulness training. By focusing on the act of respiration, you can train your brain to stay in the present. There is more than one way to practice deep breathing. Some of the most common ones are:
If you are a beginner to deep breathing, start with practicing coherent breathing. Here’s how to do it:
● Find a quiet place to sit down. You can also lie down, if you feel like.
● Inhale, slowly. Count to five as you do so. Let your belly expand.
● Exhale, slowly. Count to six as you do so.
When you are beginning, you might find it hard to count to 5 or 6 when inhaling or exhaling. If that’s the case, start with counting to 2 and 3. Build up to 5 and 6 as you get more comfortable.
Ideally, you should practice coherent breathing 10-15 minutes everyday.
This is a slightly more advanced deep breathing technique compared to coherent breathing. For this:
● Lie down in a comfortable, quiet place.
● Inhale, slowly. Count to 4 as you do so.
● Hold your breath as you count to 7.
● Exhale, slowly. Count to 8 as you do so.
This deep breathing technique focuses on tensing a muscle and then releasing the tension. It is helpful in increasing attention span, since you are training the brain to focus. For this:
● Lie down in a comfortable, quiet place.
● Inhale, slowly. As you inhale, tense up the muscles in your feet.
● Hold the breath to a count of 5.
● Exhale, slowly. Release the tension in your feet as you do.
● Repeat the steps, focusing on a different muscle each time you do it.
Used by US Navy SEALS, this deep breathing technique is similar to coherent breathing. To practice box breathing:
● Sit down in a comfortable chair, your palms placed comfortably on your lap.
● Inhale. Count to 4 in your head, slowly, as you let air fill your lungs.
● Hold your breath. Count to 4, again, slowly, as you hold your breath.
● Exhale. Count to 4, slowly, as you let air out of your lungs.
● Repeat the steps for 10-15 minutes.
Another Navy SEAL breathing technique, it is useful for calming the body when it is in the ‘flight or fight’ mode. For this:
● Stand straight.
● Place one hand on your belly and breathe-in through your nose. As you inhale, let the air first fill your belly and then move upwards to your lungs.
● Pause for a couple of seconds.
● Exhale, letting your chest deflate first, followed by your belly.
● Once you have calmed down after the first deep breath, repeat the steps. However, this time, exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Here, counting is helpful.
● For example, if the first time, you inhale and exhale to the count of 3, the second time, inhale to the count of 3 and exhale to the count of 6.
● Repeat the process 3-4 times and pay attention to how you feel immediately after.
Deep breathing shouldn’t be restricted to a regimented routine that you practice every morning, or at the end of every day. Instead, the end goal is to use it as a tool that you can use when you are feeling too stressed. Thus, ideally, you should practice deep breathing whenever you can during the day, even if it is just for a couple of minutes.
More importantly, you should try deep breathing exercises in stressful situations as much as possible. In the beginning, you might find it tough to focus on your breathing when a deadline is looming. However, that’s where practice comes in. As you train your brain to focus on breathing, you will get better at it. Here are some helpful deep breathing tips, especially for beginners, who are just starting out with this stress-relieving tool:
● Inhale through your nose. In fact, even when you are not practicing deep breathing exercises, make it a habit to inhale through your nose. It is healthier for your lungs.
● Keep it simple. If you can’t count to 4 as you inhale, don’t stress about it. The goal is to slow down your breathing and practice breathing through your diaphragm. Focus on the technique instead of the duration of the breaths.
● Stay consistent. When you are trying to learn deep breathing, it is important to practice everyday. You don’t necessarily have to set aside 10 minutes in your morning routine.
You can do it while driving to work, or even while sitting at your office desk. Make sure you do it for at least a minute, everyday, though.
It might sounds simple, but deep breathing can take time to master. Fortunately, there is technology to the rescue. Here is a list of the best deep breathing apps that you can use to get better at it:
This is a free app for iOS users that focuses on the 4-7-8 method of deep breathing. The app helps with guided breathing by breaking down the 4-7-8 technique into phases. The default breathing program is 3 minutes, although you can modify it to suit your requirements. The app even lets you measure your heart rate to gauge any level of stress that you might be under.
This is a ree app for Android users with a very simple, straightforward interface. There are seven different breathing exercises to choose from and you can set daily reminders. The app keeps track of your usage that might be helpful in tracking your progress with deep breathing exercises.
Available for, both, Android and iOS, Universal Breathing has different levels of breathing programs. You can start with beginner deep breathing exercises and slowly advance to more challenging ones. The app is free to download and uses music to guide deep breathing. There are animated explainer videos, too, that teach you proper breathing techniques.
This is a free app for Android and iOS. It also has free desktop versions for Mac and Windows, so you can download it on your office computer. It uses a ball as a visual guide for deep breathing. You can supposed to inhale as the ball gets bigger, and exhale as the ball shrinks. The app has four different kinds of deep breathing exercises that help relieve stress, regulate high blood pressure, subdue COPD symptoms, and even help with sleeplessness.
Created by Eddie Stern, a yoga teacher, and Deepak Chopra, a celebrated author, The Breathing App rests on the principle of coherent breathing. Through guided deep breathing exercises, it helps you complete 6 breaths in a minute, which is considered to be the optimum
breathing rate. You can choose from three screens for guided deep breathing – a breathing ball, much like the Breath Ball app; a timer; and audio cues. The app is free to download on Android and iOS.
While it is a meditation app that is helpful for mindfulness training, it has a bunch of breathing exercises, too. In fact, the app uses deep breathing techniques as one of the primary ways for guided meditation. There are short exercises for beginners and you can unlock new programs with in-app purchases.
This app analyses your breathing habits to suggest the best deep breathing exercises for you. You can choose between a male and a female voice for guided breathing. There is also a vibration mode for silent guidance. Deep Breathing is free to download for Android users and is
available for $3.99 on iOS.
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