Healthypedia
Lillian Wilson

Breathwork – Efficient and Free Stress-Relieving Tool

Learn how breathing exercises can help combat stress and improve your well-being.

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Stress is definitely something we face every day either at work, at a grocery store or while driving. Everybody has a reason to be stressed because of new projects, new lecturers, crowded streets, inflation, pollution and the list is endless everyone can add something to themselves.

While stress can enhance productivity for some, living in a constant ‘fight-or-flight’ mode can be harmful to others. And while drinking wine on Friday night, binge eating some unhealthy snacks or making impulsive purchases are relatable and, to some extent, efficient methods to reduce stress, they might be not very health-friendly and take you offline. However, when you need to get something off your chest here and now, you can always rely on breathing. Practising breathwork is a free and extremely effective method to fight feelings of pressure and overwhelm.

What does stress commit to your body?

When the body is subjected to psychological, environmental, or physical problems, stress makes our body’s ability to self-regulate disrupted.

Ideally, the body’s stress response has a self-regulating function and all the hormones go back to normal as soon as the danger passes. However, chronic stress can lead to a cortisol imbalance, which can cause physical and mental conditions, such as anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, digestive problems, and decreased ability to concentrate.

Living in a permanent state of stress impairs our body functions and weakens the immune system making us more vulnerable to getting infections, flues or other more severe ailments. Stress has been proven to be a risk factor of 75% to 90% of human diseases. That’s almost all of them.

According to the research, stress can weaken the immune cells’ ability to respond to signals that usually regulate inflammation. The study showed that people who were stressed were more prone to catching colds when exposed to the virus and produced more cytokines, which are chemical messengers that trigger inflammation. This information is valuable because inflammation plays a critical role in many diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, and heart disease, and highlights the impact that psychological stress can have on overall health.

Breathing and stress interconnection

The connection between breathing and stress is pretty straightforward, in fact, they both can trigger each other. Thus, poor breathing habits like mouth breathing makes us stressed, at the same time external pressure can cause dysfunctional breathing. No wonder that according to a study, 75% of the population who suffer from anxiety have disordered breathing.

Five reasons why breathing exercises are good for stress relief

1Stimulate vagus nerve relaxation

Healthy nasal breathing eases stress while mouth breathing exacerbates it. Breathing lightly and slowly promotes relaxation as this breathing pattern stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve helps to regulate stress. When you stimulate the vagus nerve you start to feel calmer and your mind becomes clearer.
The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Various body functions, including digestion, heart rate, and immunity, are controlled by this system.

2Regulate CO₂ levels which calms down your nervous system

Carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas and for the process of oxygenation to be successful we need a balance of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. When we overbreadth (hyperventilate), meaning inhale too much and too often, we cause higher levels of oxygen. This may trigger stress, fear and anxiety. At the same time, CO₂ has the quality of calming down the nervous system and relaxing muscles. For our nervous system to function properly, it is important to breathe lightly, slowly but deeply so that you receive enough oxygen as well as produce enough CO₂. Only the balance of these two gases can ensure proper oxygenation of our body.

3Slow down the heartbeat and lower blood pressure

On the events of pressure, the most common physical features of stress are a rapid heartbeat and the feeling of blood flushing and boiling in veins. Thus, to ease the stress we need to soothe those symptoms. Deep breathing exercises have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the physical symptoms of stress, such as a racing heart rate.

In fact, light, slow breathing can drop your blood pressure levels by 13.5 mmHg (and even more depending on your health). The study divided 30 patients with hypertension into three groups. The first group practised slow breathing twice a day for eight weeks, the second used a device with added pressure while doing the dame breath work, and the third did nothing. In both the slow breathing and loaded breathing groups, systolic and diastolic blood pressure decreased significantly. Slow breathing reduced diastolic blood pressure (DBP) by 7 mmHg and systolic blood pressure (SBP) by 13.5 mmHg. DBP and SBP dropped by 18.8 mmHg and 8.6 mmHg, respectively, in the group that tested a device. A slow-breathing group’s heart rate dropped by 8 beats/min, while a device group’s heart rate dropped by 9 beats/min.

Thus, the advice ‘breath in and out slowly’ really works in terms of calming down, given you breathe properly.🙂

Practising slow breathing reduced systolic blood pressure by 13.5mmHg Source: ScienceDirect

4Improve sleep quality

Sometimes we have sleepless nights and most have to acknowledge that the next day becomes a disaster, the head is cloudy and everything seems to fall apart. Studies show a good sleep can help to lower stress and anxiety levels, calm the mind and regulate metabolism. It happens due to the fact that sleep deprivation increases cortisol levels, which are a sign of stress.

Practising deep nasal breathing helps improve sleep quality, which in turn reduces stress levels. Proper breathing patterns are important for getting a good night’s sleep.

In a course of study, 140 nurses participated in diaphragmatic breathing relaxation training sessions. The training resulted in significant improvements in various aspects of sleep quality including sleep duration, disturbances, habitual sleep efficiency and reduced time for falling asleep. Additionally, anxiety levels were reduced.

5Uplift mood

Inhaling gives us energy, and opens up and uplifts the mind. By exhaling, you ground yourself, relax, and empty your lungs. Breathing in and out properly at a steady rate can help balance and boost your moods.

According to the study, using 5 minutes of breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation daily improves mood and reduces anxiety. What is more, the benefits of breathwork outweigh those of mindfulness meditation in terms of mood improvement and physiological arousal. This study also proves that cyclic sighing is most effective at enhancing mood and reducing respiratory rate.

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Inhale peace, exhale stress: five breathing exercises to try

As you already know about the benefits of proper breathing, it is high time to practise some breathing exercises. As a result, you’ll feel more energetic, more focused, more capable of dealing with stress and have a better quality of life overall.

1Cyclic sigh

The cyclic sigh, also known as a physiological sigh, is a pattern of breathing that we all engage in deep sleep when levels of carbon dioxide in our bloodstream get too high. We or our dogs do a double inhale, followed by an extended exhale. Children or adults, when sobbing and losing their breath, also breathe subconsciously using this pattern.

This is one of the easiest breath works that brings tremendously effective and fast results. Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology, reported that during a study, he conducted with his colleagues at Stanford University, they found that just one two or three of those physiological sighs bring your level of stress down very fast and it is a tool that you know you can use anytime and anywhere.

Procedure

1. Inhale through your nose.

2. Then take a short, deep sip of air.

3. Then slowly breathe out through the mouth.

2Breathe light to breathe right

This breathwork is taken from the world-leading breathwork training program by Patrick McKeown – Oxygen Advantage. Chronic stress can cause habitual over breathing and excess breathlessness, but breathing exercises like this can help reset the respiratory centre’s tolerance to carbon dioxide by creating a tolerable need for air and exerting gentle pressure on the chest and belly for 4 to 5 minutes.

Procedure

Note from Healthypedia

If you have a mirror in front of you, it will be very helpful to practice this exercise so that you can see what your breathing movements are like.

1. Sit straight and release tension in your shoulders. Picture a string delicately supporting you from the top of your head while gradually expanding the space between your ribs.

2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand above your belly button.

3. When you inhale, feel your abdomen gently expanding outward, and when you exhale, it gently contracts inward.

4. Using your hands, gently press against your abdomen and chest as you breathe. The resistance you feel during breathing should be caused by this.

5. Try to make each breath a little smaller while breathing against your hands.

6. Take in less air with each breath. Reduce or shorten your inhalation.

7. Gradually slow down and reduce your breathing until you feel a comfortable air hunger.

8. Exhale in a relaxed manner, allowing your lungs and diaphragm to naturally deflate. Imagine a balloon slowly losing its air.

9. When your inhalation is small and your exhalation is calm, your visible breathing movements may lessen. Check this in a mirror.

3Diaphragmatic breathing

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Diaphragmatic breathing is a fundamental form of breath work that involves deep breathing by expanding the stomach while inhaling and exhaling slowly through the nose. It strengthens the diaphragm and helps establish healthy breathing habits, reducing oxygen demand, promoting relaxation, and lowering blood pressure.

Procedure

1. Stand up straight.

2. Put both hands on the sides of your lower ribs.

3. Start breathing: when inhaling you should feel your hands move outwards, when exhaling feel your hands move inwards.

4. Breathe lightly and slowly.

5. Make sure you are inhaling and exhaling only through the nose.

6. Repeat this cycle as many times as desired. It usually takes up to 2-3 minutes.

4Alternate nostril breathing

Alternate nostril breathing, also known as Nadi Shodhana in Sanskrit, belongs to yogic breath works that are scientifically proven to have stress-relieving features.

Procedure

1. Ensure that you are in a comfortable position. Breathe in through your left nostril while blocking your right nostril with your thumb.

2 With your ring finger, cover your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril.

3. Breathe in through your right nostril, pinch and breathe out through your right nostril.

One cycle of this exercise equals two in-breath and two out-breath. It’s a good idea to practice it four times whenever you need to slow down or relax.

5Mindfulness breathing

To be mindful means to be present, and studies have shown that it can improve emotional regulation and well-being.

Procedure

1. During three seconds breathe in deeply.

2. Hold your breath for two seconds.

3. Using your mouth, breath out for four seconds.

Let’s summarise

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it doesn’t have to take over our health and happiness. While many people turn to unhealthy habits to alleviate stress, such as drinking or binge eating, there is a more effective and healthier solution: breathwork. By practising breathing exercises, you can stimulate the vagus nerve relaxation, regulate O₂ and CO₂ levels, slow down the heartbeat and lower blood pressure, improve sleep quality, and uplift your mood. You will gain a sense of relaxation, focus, and the ability to deal with stress if you incorporate at least one of the five breathing exercises discussed in this article into your daily routine. So inhale peace and exhale stress with the power of breathwork.

Not enough? Here is more from our colleagues

In this video, Patrick McKeown shares his breathing tips for lowering stress and anxiety levels. He also discusses how our breathing affects stress levels and the science behind it.

Patrick McKeown is a creator of revolutionary breathing-work training called Oxygen Advantage which helped thousands of people to restore their breathing, ease symptoms of asthma, and COPD, lower stress as well as improve sleep, health and life quality.


Healthypedia FAQ

Breathing and stress are connected in that they can trigger each other. Poor breathing habits such as mouth breathing can make us stressed, and external pressure can cause dysfunctional breathing. Studies have shown that 75% of people who suffer from anxiety have disordered breathing.

Breathing exercises can stimulate the vagus nerve relaxation, regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slow down the heartbeat and lower blood pressure, improve sleep quality, and uplift mood.

The cyclic sigh, also known as a physiological sigh, is a pattern of breathing that can bring your level of stress down very fast. To practice it, inhale through your nose, take a short, deep sip of air, and then slowly breathe out through the mouth.

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