Have you ever taken a deep breath to steady your nerves or calm yourself? Your breath is powerful; just a single deep breath can help change your focus or mood.
Breathing is one of the few automatic processes in our bodies that we can have some control over. Breathing is information. If you breathe fast and shallowly, your brain will read this as a signal of fear. In our fight or flight response, our nervous system kicks in and tries to make our breathing quick and shallow in an attempt to increase oxygen levels, especially to our muscles, so we can fight or run away from predators.
The reverse is also true; deep breathing is an effective way of making the brain feel safe. If you breathe slowly and deeply, your brain will receive signals that you are in a place of calm and this promotes our nervous system to switch to “rest and digest”.
In a modern world of persistent, low-grade stress (usually these are mental stressors, rather than actual lions!), our breathing is often fast and shallow.
Breathwork brings awareness and control of your breathing to change your physical and emotional state. It has been a significant practice in many cultures and religions for thousands of years but the benefits of breathwork are now far more widely recognised.
“Breathwork” may sound complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. There are many variations, but the core idea is simple; breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, letting your belly rise, pause briefly and then let out a slightly longer breath.
Like any technique, it takes regular practice. There is plenty of evidence to show that slow, deep breathing can help to reduce stress, depression and persistent pain.
These techniques, like many others, are not necessarily changing or healing tissues in the body, but they are sending comforting and distracting sensory input to the brain. It’s also something we can do for ourselves, which is empowering.
You could try some of the techniques below (“Watch This” and “Read This”) or seek out a local yoga class to help your nervous system switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.
A word of caution before you dive in that there are some possible side-effects:
- If you have a history of trauma, only start a breathwork practice following consultation with your healthcare provider as it can be triggering for some people.
- “Overbreathing” can disrupt the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream and cause symptoms such as dizziness, tingling and difficulty concentrating. Some breathwork practices have you holding your breath and this is not suitable for anybody with high blood pressure or who is pregnant or prone to fainting.
- Most breathwork practices encourage you to breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nostrils is safer; tiny hairs and mucus trap foreign particles, and breathing through your nose warms and humidifies the air before it enters your lungs, stopping everything then from drying out. For more on the benefits of nasal breathing, check out the podcast below or listen here.
- Breathwork can be a bit like drinking alcohol! Your experience will be different almost every time based on lots of different factors, such as how hydrated you are, how much exercise you’ve done and how tired you are, so take it steady and don’t push too hard.
I am sharing some of my favourite resources, including techniques for you to try, if you would like to delve deeper.
Join in with some calming breath work with Dr Rabia and Dr Rupy.
Dr Chatterjee leads you through some well known breathing techniques to help you manage stress. There are also videos demonstrating each technique.
Discover the science behind, and the benefits of, nasal breathing (30 mins).
Headspace is just one of many great apps for breathwork and meditation. They all offer free trials so why not check out a few?
Calm is another mindfulness app but you can follow them for nuggets of wisdom related to mindfulness and breathwork.
If you would like any further information or resources, or have any suggestions on how I could improve this blog, please let me know.
If you think someone you know would benefit from this blog, please share it.