Take it one breath at a time. Modern life is full of stress and there’s no escaping it. Some experts say stress is the root of all illness – our rapid-pace, high-expectation lifestyle takes a running toll on our immune system. Sooner or later, we’re bound to get sick.
We try to eat right, exercise regularly, drink enough water, and laugh often, but chronic stress makes us more prone to panic attacks, sleep disorders and other health problems. The pressure mounts and we wonder why substance abuse is on the rise. Because what do you do when you just can’t take it anymore?
Something simple that anyone and everyone can do: Breathe! Deep breathing exercises work wonders. Not the short shallow gasps that come with anxiety or our fight or flight response to stress, but proper breathing in a slow, controlled rhythm is the fastest stress reliever you can do.
It’s also the fastest painkiller you can use. Your goal is to relax, which is the opposite of pain response where you tense up and grit your teeth. Deep breathing exercises activate your relaxation response, so you are, in fact, reducing your pain. When it comes to relaxation techniques for stress relief, breathing exercises to relax top the list.
Because deep breathing exercises change your physiological response, various techniques are recommended for asthma treatment, weight loss, pregnancy, and running and how to get the most from your workout.
Hyperventilating? Signs of inefficient breathing
We all know that stress can get out of hand. In the heated moment of an argument, or if you’re feeling completely overwhelmed and in a panic, you might start hyperventilating.
When your “fight or flight” system is activated, it causes you to breathe more quickly. That’s because you need any extra air you can get to power your heart and prepare you to run. Since you’re not actually in danger, you don’t run. Instead, you simply sit and breathe too quickly. This is hyperventilation, which translates to “over breathing.”
People mistakenly believe that hyperventilation is a lack of oxygen, so you’re not getting the oxygen you need. It’s not. Hyperventilation is a lack of carbon dioxide. When you breathe too quickly, you breathe out more carbon dioxide than you have a chance to create. Your blood eventually becomes over-oxygenated – too much oxygen – and your blood ventricles start to contract. While this creates some drama, it’s rarely dangerous. It just feels terrible, and you want to curb it with breathing exercises to relax and breathing exercises for anxiety.
Here are the signs you need to watch for, before it becomes a full-blown anxiety attack:
Lightheadedness: Your body reduces blood flow to the brain when you hyperventilate.
Chest pains: Your heart has to work harder and your ventricles constrict, causing chest pains.
Rapid heartbeat: Your heart speeds up to move blood around your body.
Tingling: Blood is taken away from your hands and feet, leading to tingling and weakness.
Positive effects of breathing exercises
Breathing exercises can be used as a method to train the body’s reaction to stressful situations and dampen the production of harmful stress hormones. The positive effects are numerous. Deep breathing exercises are excellent for relieving stress and pain. They can help with sleep, blood pressure, improve exercise results and, of course, get you through childbirth.
In India, breath work called pranayama is a regular part of yoga practice. Pranayama, which literally means control of the life force, has been used as a tool for affecting both the mind and body for thousands of years.
4-7-8 Breathing exercise for sleep
With sleep trouble such a common complaint – and proper sleep so essential to good health – deep breathing exercises for sleep are a welcome fix. They act as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system, easing the body into a state of calmness and relaxation.
The “4-7-8” method comes from a Harvard-trained wellness expert as a surefire way to combat insomnia, stress and anxiety – all detrimental to clocking your solid seven to eight hours a night.
The exercise can be done anywhere in five steps, although it’s recommended to sit with your back straight while learning the exercise. Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue, so try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward. Then follow these five easy steps:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. (This is the most important part because it allows oxygen to fill your lungs and circulate, which relaxes the body.)
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Deep breathing exercise for stress or panic attack
When you feel a sense of panic, try to do this meditative deep breathing intervention right away. Start by sitting down and closing your eyes. If you can find a quiet space, even better. Let your muscles relax and concentrate on your breathing.
Now breathe in and hold your breath for one second, count one one hundred thousand. Now breathe out slowly. Breathe in again, a little deeper and hold for two seconds and breathe out.
Breathe in deeper and hold for three, then four, then five seconds. At about three seconds of breath holding, your stress level should start to drop and your mind should start to slow and clear itself of thoughts. After five, you should feel much better.
Daily practice of these breathing exercises for anxiety can help boost your overall health and sense of well-being. Always a good thing!
Breathing exercise to get the most out of a workout
When you’re working out, whether you’re running, cycling or playing tennis, people tend to breathe much faster than they should. Or worse, they hold their breath frequently. You want to avoid this – your body is working harder and needs to circulate oxygen to reach those active muscles efficiently.
To get the most out of workout, be conscious of your breath. Try breathing through your nose to breathe in more air, use more of your lung capacity, and therefore take in more energy. This nasal breathing promotes belly breathing as opposed to shallow chest breathing for better energy and performance. Breathe in and out through your nose! For cooling down or trying to slow your breath after a workout, breathe through your nose and out through your mouth.
When you’ve mastered the nasal breathing, try balancing your inhale and exhale. Experts suggest a 3:2 inhale-to-exhale ratio – inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two. This technique will keep your breaths slow and under control.
Another tip: Diaphragmatic breathing where you perform slow, deep breaths that fill your belly takes effort. Whether it’s breathing exercises for running or breathing exercises for weight loss, you need to take five minutes at the end of your workout and just breathe. Some athletes, when they’re over-stressed, do this instead of a workout to calm and recharge their body, and end up sweating from the effort of an hour of deep breathing exercise.
Best bet? Lie on the floor with your feet elevated to rest on a chair. Now focus on deep breathing for five minutes, allowing oxygen to get to all your muscles and tight spots.
In terms of weight loss, this deep breathing exercise releases serotonin, which not only makes you feel good, but can reduce cravings for processed carbohydrates and other junk food. And it also balances out those stress hormones and cortisol production that lead to fat around the abdomen.
Lamaze breathing exercise for pregnancy and childbirth
Dr. Ferdinand Lamaze, a French obstetrician, pioneered the Lamaze breathing technique in the late 1950s to help with pain management during pregnancy and childbirth. Lamaze breathing exercise in pregnancy promotes a relaxation response to uterine contractions. The intentional patterned breathing helps to increase oxygenation and interfere with the transmission of pain signals from the uterus to the brain. The idea is you focus on your breathing to calm and relax your mind and body.
Examples include inhaling for five seconds, then breathing out for five seconds. Another option is the two short breaths, then one deep breath exercise that sounds like “hee-hee-hooooo” – with the last breath released through the mouth.
Breathing exercise for asthma: Buteyko Breathing Therapy
Buteyko exercises are a popular technique to address asthma. Buteyko Breathing Therapy (BBT) was developed in 1952 by a Ukrainian physiologist, Konstantin Buteyko. He linked hyperventilation to asthma and developed a breathing technique to provide relief similar to medications or a puffer.
The theory behind breathing exercises for asthma treatment is that taking slow, shallow breaths rather than trying to breathe deeply, works best during an asthma attack. How to do buteyko breathing exercises comes down to breathing through your nose, not your mouth. As you breathe through your nose and abandon mouth breathing, your nose starts to water and you frequently have to blow it. Interesting to note, your nasal passages expand over time, making it easier to get all your air through your nose.
Asthmatics typically breathe through the mouth; they tend to breathe heavier and have a higher respiratory rate than non-asthmatics. The heavier breathing volume can cause a disturbance of blood gasses, including the loss of carbon dioxide. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it’s important that your breathing volume is normal, to maintain a certain amount of CO2 in your lungs. Otherwise, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen is delivered throughout your body due to lack of carbon dioxide, which causes your blood vessels to constrict and your airways to close. Controlling your breathing, then, makes a huge difference for asthmatics. Breathing exercises for asthma treatment can be an effective strategy.
Every breath we take is an opportunity for better health. It’s within our control and the more we do it, the better. Deep breathing exercises provide such a simple way to tackle anxiety, boost our immunity and tackle all the stresses of modern life.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.