You've probably heard quite a lot of people saying that breathing exercises are the key to a happier, healthier life.
They're said to help you combat anxiety, to take a more relaxed attitude to stress, and even to get a more restful night's sleep. But why are breathing exercises so effective?
And out of the many that you can find online, which should you choose to get the best results?
We'll explain the main benefits of breathing exercises, helping you to understand why they're so often recommended.
Then, we'll move on to look at the very best breathing exercises you can try for a range of different problem – techniques that work well for both anxiety and stress at the moment, ones that help to reduce stress over a longer period of times, and ones that help you relax or fall asleep.
We'll close by looking at how self-hypnosis can enhance what you can get from your breathing exercises.
Deep breathing techniques were used in ancient Buddhist and yoga practices, and continue to be used today.
How you breathe can impact every system in the body.
Increasingly, deep breathing benefits and scientifically documented and supported by evidence.
For example, a large study performed at Ireland's Trinity College found that breathing is linked to focus.
By regulating our breathing, we can reduce the production of noradrenaline -a chemical messenger that helps you concentrate but that increases anxiety by flooding you when you're stressed.
Daily breathing exercises, it turns out, help you produce just the right amount to do your best work while still feeling relaxed.
In contrast, shallow breathing reduces your resistance to disease and keeps you in a cycle of stress.
Further, deep breathing:
As noted above, consistently taking shallow breaths can contribute to stress and anxiety.
For one thing, if you don't breathe properly then you don't always get enough oxygen into your body or get rid of enough carbon dioxide (which is a waste product).
Some research on breathing patterns suggests that shallow breathers are more likely to not only feel anxious.
They are less likely to have panic attacks, experience chronic fatigue, and struggle with low mood.
Here are two new approaches to breathing that you can try today. Both are designed to help you de-escalate when you're feeling anxious or stressed.
The diaphragm breathing technique is safe for almost everyone but check with your doctor if you have a respiratory condition.
To practice the technique, sit or lie down in a quiet place, wearing comfortable clothes. Put your hands in your lap, rest them flat on your bed, or put them on the arms of your chair.
Next, put your left hand right on your stomach and right hand on your upper chest. Take a deep breath in from your abdomen – not your throat – and count to three.
If you're doing it right, your right hand won't move but your stomach will rise under your left.
Take a short breath, then exhale to a count of three. You should feel your stomach drop-down under your left hand. Repeat this pattern for 5-10 minutes, noticing that you become more relaxed over time.
If it helps, you can say an affirmation on each exhale, such as “relax” or “calm.”
When you first start trying to work on your breathing, you might notice that simply taking deeper breaths doesn't really reduce your anxiety. This is because deep inhales actually active your fight-or-flight system.
If you focus on lengthening your exhales instead then you will see big differences.
Exhaling is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system, and you can exploit this link to help your body relax.
When you feel the urge to take a deep breath, try a long exhale instead, fully emptying your lungs. Then, let your inhale develop naturally, as your body sees fit.
For each following exhale, spend longer on it than you do on your inhales. For example, try inhaling to a count of five and exhaling to a count of seven.
Now, let's look at two breathing exercises to reduce stress. These are particularly useful if you don't only experience episodes of anxiety but also tend to feel that your life is stressful.
Practiced frequently, these exercises can help you to better cope with stress and improve your ability to regulate your own emotions.
There are two key visualization breathing exercises you should try.
The first involves inflating an imaginary balloon.
This might seem odd at first, but it again helps to activate that parasympathetic nervous system in a way that relaxes you.
To do this exercise, find a comfortable position, breathe normally for a couple of minutes, then concentrate on filling your abdomen like a balloon with each inhales.
On each exhale, picture air slowly seeping out of that balloon.
Picture the balloon in your mind's eye throughout, perhaps as your favorite color. This exercise helps to train you out of breathing shallowly.
The second visualization exercise starts the same way – with you getting comfortable. Breathe from your diagram, and on each inhalation imagine every feeling of stress in your body filling your chest.
Next, as you breathe out, imagine the stress goes out with your breath. Repeat this at a slow, steady pace to gradually get rid of stress.
There are plenty of other stress-busting breathing exercises you can try, but one of the most powerful of all is the Shamatha (“Breathing as Is”) technique.
To do it, get comfortable in either a sitting or standing position. Start by increasing your awareness of your own body, noticing the weight of it on your feet, and the sensation of the chair or floor beneath you.
Keep your back straight, and relax your gaze, fixing it on a central point so that you are not truly looking at what's in front of you.
Turn your attention to the natural rhythm of your breath, paying special attention to the way your stomach rises and falls.
As this is a meditative exercise, your mind may wander at times. Gently redirect it, and refocus on the breath
While it's undeniably helpful to learn breathing techniques for stress, it's also important to learn exercises that you can use to relax even when life is going well.
These techniques will help you get a good night's sleep, and may also help to slow your heart rate and regulate your blood pressure.
This exercise can be performed alone or as preparation for the technique below.
The idea is that you can prime yourself for relaxation by choosing the right place and by getting your body ready.
This means finding a quiet, calm room, taking off your shoes, and wearing your most comfortable clothes.
Next, find the most natural position for your body, and either close your eyes or softly focus on something in front of you.
Try to focus on nothing but your breathing.
This is very similar to the meditative exercise above, but it's more about focusing on breath than on your body.
Within minutes, you should feel more relaxed.
Once you're sufficiently relaxed, you can move on to practice a progressive muscle relaxation technique. It's best to do this one sitting, but the good news is that it can be done anywhere – whether you're at home, at work, or traveling.
The core activity is tensing and relaxing all of your muscle groups, one by one. This releases tension you're holding throughout.
To do this exercise, close your eyes and focus on your feet. Deliberately tense them, then relax them.
Work up past your ankle to your knees, thighs, buttocks, your pelvis, abdomen, chest, hands, arms, the front and back of your neck, both sides of your jaw, and your brow.
As you tighten and release each muscle group, keep your breathing slow and steady. Notice how fluidly you move and how different your body feels afterward – how loose and comfortable it feels.
If you're not used to this exercise it's easy to lose focus before you've finished. Experts on anxiety and relaxation suggest that you can better maintain focus by holding your breath to a count of five while you tense your muscles, breathing out when you relax the muscles.
Now, almost any of the above exercises can help you prepare for sleep. However, certain further techniques specifically target getting a good night's sleep.
These breathing exercises for sleep can help you combat insomnia and help you set aside the stresses of the day, marking a transition from activity to rest.
Sometimes called square breathing, the box breathing technique trains your attention on them that you're drawing into your body with every breath.
Sit down, keep your spine straight, take a breath in, and then exhale as exhaustively as you can – aim to get all the air out of your lungs.
Next, breathe in through your nose to a count of four, and hold your breath to a count of four, focusing on the thought that you're drawing fresh oxygen into your blood.
Finally, slowly breathe out through your mouth, again focusing on releasing all the carbon dioxide through your exhalation.
Finally, the three-part breathing exercise is very easy to follow and also primes your body for sleep.
The first part involves simply taking in a long, deep breath. Inhale slowly, so as not to trigger your fight-or-flight response.
The second part is to exhale, noticing the movements and feelings of your body as you do so.
Repeat this a couple of times, then do the third part of the exercise – slow down the speed of your exhalation so that it lasts double the time of your inhales.
So, if your inhalation is to a count of five, make your exhalation to a count of ten.
If you like how you feel after these exercises, why not try our self-hypnosis for relaxation program as the next step? By leading you into a receptive, calm state and accessing your subconscious mind, self-hypnosis can help you get rid of the stubborn thoughts and feelings that trigger stress and anxiety.
Hypnosis can't make you do anything you don't want to do, but it can help you achieve your goals and overcome internal limitations that are holding you back.