Did you know that shallow breathing can interrupt your sleep? Shallow breathing can also be the cause of snoring and may even lead to serious sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea. Not to mention snoring can be pretty annoying to other family members.
There are many reasons why shallow breathing might manifest, including stress and anxiety, allergies and asthma. If the main cause of your shallow breathing is stress and anxiety, then breathing exercises can play an important role in helping to improve your sleep.
These exercises can help you get a good night’s sleep and significantly reduce the stress and anxiety built up during the day. This article examines the 5 most popular breathing methods and their powerful benefits on sleep and stress.
But before we get started, let’s take a look at the benefits of practising breathing techniques for better sleep.
Breathing exercises: four sleep benefits
Breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing are popular among performers, entertainers and professional athletes. But in recent years, and with the boom of yoga, many amateur fitness buffs are now learning about the powerful benefits of controlled breathing.
1. Relax your mind
When it comes to calming your mind, there’s no more powerful strategy than the 4-7-8 breathing method. Once you focus on your counting, your mind is immediately drawn to your current feeling and state of mind rather than the stresses built up during the day.
This remarkably simple method proves to be very effective at easing stress and putting your mind at ease. In some ways, it’s similar to counting sheep as you did when you were a child. Although counting sheep never seemed to get me to sleep.
2. Reduce stress
The common ‘flight or fight’ response originates from our ‘sympathetic nervous system.’ When stressed and anxious, this system kicks into overdrive, making us feel excited and ‘pumped up.’ Other signs of the sympathetic nervous system at work are an elevated heart rate, fast breathing, nausea, and sweaty palms.
On the other hand, you have the ‘parasympathetic nervous system,’ which negates your nervous system helping you to calm down. Breathing exercises significantly trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and allow you to control your breathing, slow your heart rate and ultimately calm your mind.
3. Induce sleep
Counting sheep never seemed to work for me when I was a child. However, studies have shown that focusing on counting your breath can help to induce sleep by lowering your heart rate and even reducing blood pressure.
4. Boost stress management
Have you heard the saying, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’? Well, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the human body. By practising breathing exercises, you can rewire your nervous system with a little practice and commitment.
Next time you’re stressed out, sit back in your chair and practise your breathing exercises. Doing this when you are stressed strengthens your body’s ability to respond to stress in the future.
Top 5 breathing exercises for sleep and relaxation
There are many different types of breathing exercises designed to help you forget about the day’s stresses and calm your mind. Breathing methods such as the 4-7-8 methods and Box Breathing have been shown to induce sleep, relieve stress and anxiety and clear your mind.
Below are five popular breathing strategies and easy-to-follow instructions to relax your mind and get you to sleep.
The 4-7-8 breathing strategy is based on pranayama yoga practices and involves deep and rhythmical breathing. Many people suffering from sleep disorders like insomnia swear by this breathing method as it induces tiredness and sleepiness with the added benefit of easing stress.
Five steps to 4-7-8 breathing
1. Loudly and forcefully exhale through your mouth.
2. Now, close your mouth and calmly inhale through your nose for a 4 count.
3. Next, hold your breath for 7 seconds.
4. Finally, exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds. Now, you’ve completed the 4-7-8 breathing cycle.
5. For beginners, aim to perform between 5 and 10 rotations. Once you’re more comfortable with the process, you can increase the number of rotations.
2Alternate nostril breathing
Similar in technique to pranayama breathing, alternate nostril breathing is an effective breathing method despite its funny name. Alternate nostril breathing requires the participant to ‘block’ one nostril while breathing through the other.
Five steps to alternate nostril breathing
1. Block your left nostril for 5 seconds while breathing through your right nostril.
2. Block your right nostril for 5 seconds while breathing through your left nostril.
3. Now, unblock your right nostril and breath out for 5 seconds through your left nostril.
4. Alternate the steps above.
5. Repeat the technique for as long as you feel comfortable. Typically 2 to 3 minutes should be enough when starting out.
Box breathing is one of my favourite breathing techniques and is actually used by several high-profile professional athletes. Box breathing combines breathing techniques with visualization. The ‘box’ name acts as a reminder to keep each step equal in time.
Four steps to box breathing
1. Start the exercise after exhaling. Then, slowly count to 4 while inhaling through your nose.
2. Now, hold your breath for a further 4 seconds.
3. Next, breathe out through your mouth for another 4 seconds.
4. Finally, hold your breath for 4 more seconds.
The beauty of this exercise is that it’s flexible in terms of what image you choose and how long you hold your breath. Experiment with different images and lengths of time to find what works best for you.
4Bhramari Pranayama breathing
Bhramari Pranayama originates from the yoga practice called ‘pranayama’. It involves covering your eyes and ear and making a humming sound. This exercise is not easy, and it’s not for everyone, but it is well worth giving it a go.
Four steps to bhramari pranayama breathing
1. Find a comfortable position and put ear muffs or noise-cancelling headphones on to block the sound.
2. Place a towel or something to cover your eyes to ensure it’s as dark as possible.
3. Now, take a deep breath and exhale through your nose while creating a humming sound (any relaxing sound you can make will do if you can’t make a humming sound).
4. Aim for between 3 minutes when starting and increase the time the more comfortable you become.
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the most well-known and effective breathing strategies out there. Diaphragmatic breathing helps to promote calm breathing and slows the heart rate to help you settle down.
Five steps to diaphragmatic breathing
1. Sit in an upright position (you can lie down, too) and place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your tummy.
2. Breathe deeply through your nose and ensure your hand on your chest doesn’t move. The hand on your tummy should slowly rise.
3. Now, as you breathe out, the hand on your tummy should slowly lower back down.
4. Focus entirely on counting each breath and feel your hand rise and fall while breathing using your diaphragm.
5. Aim for between 20 and 25 big tummy breaths.
Let’s sum it up
Committing to and practising breathing exercises, particularly before bed, can transform your nervous system into a strong and robust one. Having the confidence knowing that you can control your thoughts, feelings, and emotions is a powerful one and one that will lead to a healthier you.
So whether it’s box breathing or the 4-7-8 method, next time you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, take a few deep breaths and let the stress melt away.
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