Most of the time, we don’t even think about breathing. It’s something our bodies do automatically 12 to 16 times every minute, 24 hours a day. The reason we breathe is to bring oxygen into our lungs to be distributed to our body’s many cells, and to help remove carbon dioxide.
Typically, we think about breathing only when we find it challenging. We may have a bad cold or other respiratory condition that makes it tougher to take satisfying breaths. Or we feel our breathing speed up while we’re working out or engaging in any kind of physical activity.
There’s good reason to become more aware of breathing and how we do it. How we breathe can have significant effects on both our mental and physical health. Intentional control of our breathing can help us boost our physical energy, improve our moods, and even fall asleep more easily.
Take a few normal breaths. Now, take 4 breaths in and count to 4 as they go in, hold them for 4 seconds, release slowly for 4 seconds, and then allow your belly to stay empty for 4 seconds. It’s what we call 4-square breathing. Did you notice any changes in how you felt? Most people will say they instantly feel clearer and more relaxed. Do it again and pay attention to how your body breathes. If your chest and ribs expand but everything below them remains still, that’s called chest breathing. If your chest stays still but your stomach expands, that’s what’s known as belly breathing. And if your belly moves while your chest and ribs expand, you’re experiencing what’s called diaphragmatic breathing.
Chest breathing tends to be faster and shallower than the other types. It usually happens when you’re recovering from physical exertion or feeling scared. As the body rushes to increase the amount of air it’s taking in, your heart rate will speed up and you may become nervous and restless. Belly breathing tends to be calmer, but it isn’t deep, so it may cause you to feel a lack of energy. Generally, diaphragmatic breathing is the healthiest kind of breathing.
Mindfulness exercises such as meditation and yoga are built around controlled breathing and that’s part of what makes them so effective. You can gain many of the benefits of that kind of breathing with a very simple breathing exercise. Inhale deeply through your nose as you silently count 4 seconds. You’ll feel your chest and stomach expand as the air enters. Now hold that breath for another 4 seconds, and then exhale through your mouth for 4 more seconds. Pause and do it again. If you do this 4 times in a row, you’ll notice you feel calmer and more relaxed. You’re probably also more attentive and have more energy. Some people do this exercise when they’re having trouble falling asleep.
Breathing exercises like these benefit you in many ways. Not only do they help your body by ensuring you’re taking in enough oxygen, but they relax your mind, too. While you’re focused on your breathing, you can’t think about work, the errands you need to run, or the bills that are waiting to be paid. You’re just focused on breathing. Try this exercise three times a day, and you’ll find yourself becoming more relaxed and in better control of your emotions. Want to know more about other breathing exercises and ways you can use mindfulness to enhance your life? Just take a deep breath and ask!
Ginger Boyce worked in clinical research before deciding to teach trauma sensitive yoga and movement as a way to help with mental health challenges. She is available to do private sessions, group or family sessions and corporate stress reduction sessions as well.