If you’re reading this, you’re breathing. What’s interesting about breathing is we do it regardless of whether we’re thinking about it. Yet we can also voluntarily control our breathing when we are conscious of our breathing patterns. For example, we can choose to control our breath by slowing it down, speeding it up, or taking shallow or deep breaths.
How we breathe affects our health. By breathing more deeply or controlling our breath intentionally, we can impact our body in a number of positive ways, says Baxter Bell, MD, a certified yoga instructor and medical acupuncturist. “For starters, we can lower our blood pressure and stress level, and think more clearly,” he says. Feeling calm and centered after deep breathing is common, and a breathing practice can promote a greater sense of well-being, he says.
If you’re interested in how deep-breathing works and how it can be beneficial, keep reading to find out more about this valuable health tool that requires no special equipment and can be accessed at any moment of your day.
What Is the Function of Breathing?
There are two phases of breathing: inhaling (taking breath in) and exhaling (breathing out). When you inhale, the diaphragm — which is the big, dome-shaped muscle located between your chest and abdominal cavities — contracts and moves downward. This creates extra space in the chest cavity, and the lungs expand into it. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes as the amount of air in the lungs is reduced.
What Is Deep Breathing?
“There is an intentionality to deep breathing; you’re really trying to fill your lungs with air. In most cases, you’re not getting that when you are breathing normally,” says Yufang Lin, MD, a doctor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio. If your breath is shallow, you may be imposing stress on your body unintentionally, or the stress you feel may be contributing to shallow breathing. (More on this later.)
When we’re deep breathing, though, the breath naturally slows down, says Dr. Bell. “When sitting down or doing a nonstrenuous activity, most people, on average, breathe in for about two seconds and breathe out for two seconds,” he says. That’s about what a typical respiration rate is when we’re not really consciously thinking about our breath.
Deep breathing requires you to relax your abdominal region while you take a deep breath in, says Megan Elizabeth Riehl, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor and health psychologist at University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor. “We are more slowly filling the lungs with air as we breathe in and allowing the lungs to expand, which will move the diaphragm [as it contracts]. At the exhale, we release all the air out” as the diaphragm relaxes and the chest wall recoils, she says. In focusing our awareness on this process, we can slow our breathing pattern, she says.
Controlling the breath can be part of a yoga or mindfulness practice, but breath-focused meditation doesn’t have to be deep breathing, says Dr. Riehl. “Some yoga breathing can be similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but it can sometimes be very different. For example, [for] some breathing patterns in yoga, you are supposed to keep your mouth closed,” she says. In diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing, you typically are encouraged to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, she says.
“Breath-focused meditation can be an entry point of bringing you to a mindful place, accepting the present moment for what it is. Your breath is the one true thing that is present in the moment — you can’t breathe ahead, and you can’t breathe backwards,” says Riehl.
“In meditation or guided relaxation, oftentimes the practice will begin with an awareness of your breath as you breathe in and out, but you might not practice deep breathing or change anything about your breath pattern,” she says.
“It might just be an invitation to pay attention to or notice: Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Is it shallow or deep? That aspect of mindfulness or starting a meditation is a little bit different from intentionally practicing diaphragmatic breathing,” says Riehl.
Downsides of Shallow Breathing
“Stress can shift our breathing,” says Riehl. “We can become shallow breathers in the face of stress or tension.”
This usually has to do with our body’s sympathetic arousal, which can be activated in times of stress, she says. This is also known as the “fight or flight response,” and the release of hormones can drive up our breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, says Riehl. This response prepares the body to survive a real or perceived threat, so whether there’s a car swerving at you or you’re going to talk to your boss about a raise, the body’s sympathetic system responds similarly.
Shallow breathing can lead to physical tension in different parts of your body, including your shoulders, jaw, hands, or back, she says. “That tension also is associated with increased GI distress. Overall, it can have a snowball effect — stress might trigger more shallow breathing, and then the physical effects can lead to more stress,” she says.
Abdominal vs. Chest Breathing
We’re all born as deep breathers, says Riehl. “Think about a sleeping infant. Their little bellies rise and fall slowly and peacefully — you can see that really clearly,” she says.
When we move out of infancy and begin to move and run around more, we shift from being belly breathers or deeper breathers to breathing from our chest more, says Riehl.
Chest breathing still gets the job done of moving the air through our lungs, but the breath tends to be shorter and more shallow, says Dr. Lin. “For most of us, when we’re engaged in our everyday breathing, we’re just breathing using the upper half or top third of our lungs. When you take a deep breath in, your chest is rising, but for most people, your abdomen is not moving at all,” she says.
Potential Health Benefits of Deep Breathing
A key benefit of deep breathing is that it can help manage stress, which is a contributor to many health conditions, says Bell. While research results on deep breathing vary, experts agree deep breathing is safe for most people to try.
Whether done alone, as a meditation, or in combination with a movement practice like yoga, this complementary approach may be worth trying if you are dealing with a health condition.
For instance, deep breathing may help you manage or improve:
- Gastrointestinal (GI) conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by lowering levels of stress and anxiety
- High blood pressure
- Mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as sleep disorders like insomnia, by lowering stress and promoting relaxation
- Pelvic floor problems, such as overactive bladder, by lowering perceived stress
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by improving air circulation and quality of life with COPD,and helping with hyperventilation, lung function, and quality of life in mild to moderate asthma
- Skin conditions, including eczema (atopic dermatitis), possibly by reducing inflammationand psoriasis flares
- Autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus, by promoting heart rate variability, considered a sign of heart health
- Neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease, which can cause dysphagia and breathing issues at advanced stages,and migraine
- Hot flashes, which are associated with rapid heart rate, and other potentially stressful symptoms of perimenopause
- High blood sugar levels and oxidative stress, which contribute to disease progression in type 2 diabetes
- Recovery from COVID-19, because it can help boost lung capacity, improve diaphragm function, and lessen stress levels associated with the novel coronavirus
Riehl has witnessed the benefits of deep breathing among her patients with GI conditions, which include IBS and ulcerative colitis. The way the diaphragm moves in deep breathing can allow for a reduction in tension in the digestive tracts, she says. “This can aid digestion and help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, constipation, and diarrhea,” says Riehl.
In terms of emotional wellness, the ability to employ deep breathing when you find yourself overwhelmed or overstressed can be very helpful in the way we feel and think. “The more stressed we become, the harder it can be for us to think clearly,” she says.
Are There Any Health Risks Associated With Deep Breathing?
In the scheme of interventions, deep breathing is very low risk, says Riehl. “Sometimes, people will say when they are learning diaphragmatic breathing that they can feel a little light-headed. That’s because they are putting more oxygen in their bodies than they are typically used to,” she says, and levels of carbon dioxide are lowered. It might make you feel different from how you typically feel when you breathe, but it’s not dangerous in any capacity, she adds. If you have any concerns or discomfort, such as pain or excessive light-headedness, when starting a deep breathing technique, consult your healthcare team.
How to Start Practicing Deep Breathing
You might plan to set aside time each day to practice deep breathing, or you can choose to do it whenever you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed, says Riehl. Because deep breathing can be a natural sleep aid, doing it before bedtime can also be helpful.
“In those stressful times, you might even catch yourself holding your breath or gasping a little bit. If you can shift that through deep breathing or another relaxation technique, you can have a little bit more control of activating what’s called our parasympathetic system, or our body’s relaxation response. By doing that, we can bring things back to baseline,” she says.
A Simple Deep-Breathing Exercise for Beginners
Riehl regularly works with deep-breathing newbies, and she suggests the following exercise to get started.
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breathe normally; you’ll probably notice how the top hand is moving more than the bottom hand. Riehl says your goal is to shift that so that the top hand remains steady and the bottom hand begins to move as the belly rises and falls.
Allow your belly to be soft as you take a deep breath in through your nose. Counting to yourself can be helpful to get into a rhythm; breathe in through your nose to about a count of four, she says. As you breathe in, the belly is going to rise very slowly, and then as you exhale, the belly will fall. “Try to make your exhale last a second or two longer than your inhale,” says Riehl. “Practice that for 6 to 10 breaths; you don’t need to do this for 20 minutes if you’re new to deep breathing.”
Once you get comfortable with it, you can let go of counting if you want to, she says. “Just notice it takes a couple seconds to breathe in and for the belly to rise, and then a couple seconds to breathe out and for the belly to fall, aiming to have your exhale last just a little bit longer than your inhale.”
Slowing down and controlling breath during a difficult situation — whether you’re feeling anxious, have a flare-up of lower back pain, or something else — can make a real difference, says Bell. “It can give a sense of control in situations where we often feel out of control. It’s empowering to have something you can immediately put into action,” he says.
Learn More About Deep Breathing Exercises for Beginners
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