Good breathing brings better health

Our first act upon entering the world as babies is an inhalation. While leaving, we let out a collective sigh of relief. (In many languages, "exhale" is actually a synonym for "death.") Breathing is so crucial to survival that people have been trying to regulate their breathing to enhance their physical and mental health for thousands of years.

Both the Tao religion of China and Hinduism, which originated in the first millennium B.C., considered breathing as a manifestation of a "vital principle" that flows through the body, a form of energy or internal breath. Qi is the Chinese word for this vital force, while prana is the Hindu word (one of the key concepts of yoga).

Similarly, the Greek word pneuma and the Hebrew word rûah were both used to refer to the breath and the divine presence a little later in the West. The Latin root spiritus also forms the basis of the English words "spirit" and "respiration

To help people unwind in the contemporary era, German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz created "autogenic training" in the 1920s. Slow, deep breathing is a key component of this method, and it remains the most popular breathing technique for stress relief in the Western world. Breathing exercises are also emphasised in the more modern types of mindfulness meditation.

In fact, breathing is the foundation of every method for soothing the body and mind, from yoga to tai chi to meditation. The benefits of paying attention to and adjusting our inhalations and exhalations have been supported by studies of both fundamental physiology and the outcomes of employing breath-control techniques.

Many of the breathing techniques currently in use have their roots in yoga and meditation. Pranayama yoga practitioners theorised about the advantages of regulated breathing hundreds of years ago.


A simple knowledge of physiology can shed light on the relaxing effects of controlled breathing. A person's physical health can be affected by their mental state. For example, when you are joyful, you have a telltale crinkle at the corners of your eyes and an upturn at the corners of your mouth. A person's breathing also naturally slows and deepens when they are feeling relaxed, secure, at rest, or involved in a positive social encounter. The parasympathetic nervous system is at work, making you feel calm and peaceful. However, when you are anxious, in pain, or just plain stiff and unpleasant, your breathing rate increases and your breaths become shallower. As a result, the body's stress response mechanisms, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, have been triggered. Although it is commonly recognised that emotions can affect one's physical state, it is less well understood that the reverse is also true. It has been scientifically proven that when you smile, your brain responds positively, making you feel happier. To a unique extent, the act of breathing can influence thought.

Patients who have trouble breathing are clear examples of this strength. These challenges can cause panic attacks when they are sudden and severe, but they usually just cause mild anxiety when they persist over time. Anxiety and depression are common among those who suffer with COPD, with estimates putting the number at over 60%. What could be more distressing than struggling to breathe? ), but purely mechanical factors may also contribute: because of the difficulty these patients experience, they often breathe faster, which does not necessarily improve the quality of their oxygen supply but can aggravate their physical discomfort and anxiety.

The vicious cycle of increased dread, which causes faster breathing, which increases fear, might lead to and intensify panic episodes. Significant and unconscious hyperventilation was discovered by Georg Alpers and colleagues in 2005 at the University of Mannheim in Germany when people with a fear of driving went on the highway (where they might not be able to pull over if they become agitated).

If you suffer from anxiety, you may find relief by practising one of several breathing techniques based on Eastern philosophy and medicine (for more, read "Six Techniques for Relieving Stress"). One of the introductory practises of mindfulness meditation is called "follow your breath," and it entails paying attention to the breath in the same way that alternate nostril breathing does in yoga. Sophrology, which aims to achieve a state of mental and physical balance, incorporates techniques from a variety of disciplines, such as yoga and mindfulness, including the use of positive self-talk in conjunction with conscious breathing to promote relaxation.

Studies have shown that these methods are effective in lowering anxiety levels, however they do not eliminate it entirely. Simply improving one's breathing is not a cure all. Clinical studies support the use of some approaches while others have not. Everything I detail in this essay, however, is based on tried-and-true methods. Aiming to slow down, deepen, or make breathing easier, these techniques employ the rhythm of one's breath as a focal point or a metronome to refocus one's attention away from anxious or depressing thoughts.


To learn more about the ways in which breathing exercises might help you unwind, let's take a closer look at one of the most widely used methods: cardiac coherence. By using biofeedback, this method works to synchronise the patient's breathing with their heart rate, with the goal of reducing their heart rate by controlling their breathing.

The vagus nerve, a component of the parasympathetic nervous system, governs and measures the activity of many internal organs, hence this technique was developed on the basis of that knowledge. Stimulating the vagus nerve induces a state of deep relaxation across the entire body, including a drop in heart rate and regularisation of blood pressure and a loosening of all skeletal muscles. The vagus nerve sends a message to the brain about the body's altered state, and the brain responds by slowing down its own activity, heightening the sense of calm. Consequently, the method is effective on a neurobiological and psychological level.

Cardiac coherence, by stabilising the heartbeat, can significantly reduce anxiety. As a counterexample, patients with hyperactive heartbeats are often incorrectly labelled as sufferers of panic attacks due to the psychological impact of their condition.

To practise cardiac coherence, take a five-second breath in and hold it for five seconds out (for a 10-second respiratory cycle). With the use of biofeedback technology, you can watch as your heart rate and breathing rate gradually decrease and stabilise as you breathe deeply and regularly. (The time lapse between heartbeats on the screen is never precisely the same, but it standardises over time with this method.) Numerous studies have shown that using such tools can significantly reduce anxiety; nonetheless, it is likely that the equipment has a greater impact on the motivation to perform the exercises ("It makes it seem serious, real") than on the physiological mechanisms themselves. It's possible that the same effect may be achieved with the simple use of slow breathing with the same conviction and severity.

If you want to achieve cardiac coherence, some versions of the practise suggest exhaling for longer than inhaling (for example, six and four seconds). Indeed, your heart rate increases somewhat during inhalation and falls during exhalation; elongating the latter phase likely has a calming influence on the heart and, by extension, the brain. However, clinical trials are needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Studies have shown that the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body's "rest and digest" response, isn't the only system affected by the breathing techniques used in cardiac coherence and other forms of exercise; some studies have even linked the central nervous system to the emotional effects. It's possible that breathing has a direct effect on the brain.

For instance, in 2017, researchers led by Mark Krasnow of Stanford University demonstrated in mice that the locus coeruleus, a region involved in attention, wakefulness, and anxiety, is partially controlled by a group of neurons that regulates respiratory rhythms (the pre-Bötzinger complex in the brain stem). Meditation and breathing exercises may affect the pre-Bötzinger complex, which controls emotional processing.

It's possible that the brain's reaction has more to do with the focus on inhaling and exhaling than with the slowing of breathing itself. Anselm Doll and his colleagues at the Technical University of Munich demonstrated in 2016 that this kind of focused attention reduces stress and negative emotions by activating the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (a control centre of the brain) and by dampening activity in the amygdala (a region of the brain involved in these feelings).

As I've already indicated, the act of focusing on one's breathing causes the majority of individuals to slow down and deepen their breaths, which has a calming effect. The brain can only handle so much stress, which is why people often focus on their breathing to free up space for more pressing concerns. Mindful people train themselves to become aware of when their attention has wandered from their breathing and back to their worries, and they practise coming back to their breathing at regular intervals. This redirection has a calming impact on everyone and is especially useful for those who suffer from anxiety or depression and are prone to ruminative thinking because of persistent negative ideas.


At what point would it be most beneficial to practise deep, calm breathing? One is before a time of brief but intense pressure, like right before an exam, a game, or even a regular meeting at work. Ashwin Kamath of Manipal University in India and his coworkers investigated performance anxiety in 2017. Each participant, a medical student, spent 15 minutes practising alternate nostril breathing, in which they slowly inhaled through one nostril and exhaled through the other while pressing their index finger against the side of their nose that was not being utilised. Participants felt slightly less anxiety about public speaking than the control group.

If you suffer from insomnia, you could try doing these exercises. More than 20% of American insomniacs use these breathing exercises to help them sleep, according to a 2012 study by Suzanne M. Bertisch of Harvard Medical School and colleagues. It's possible they're onto something here. In 2015, a group led by Cheryl Yang at Taiwan's National Yang-Ming University found that practising slow breathing exercises (at a rate of six breaths per minute) for 20 minutes before bedtime dramatically improved sleep quality. Participants with insomnia fell asleep sooner, woke up less often throughout the night, and re-entered sleep more quickly. They averaged a ten-minute time to sleep, which is roughly three times as fast as the norm. In addition to the parasympathetic system's calming mediation, the researchers also credited the effects of concentrated breathing.

Breathing exercises are effective not just for short-term stressors and insomnia but also for long-term anxiety relief. People suffering from psychiatric conditions like phobias, sadness, and post-traumatic stress disorder benefit greatly from them. In 2015, Stefania Doria and coworkers at Milan, Italy's Fatebenefratelli e Oftalmico Hospital delivered 10 training sessions of 2 hours each over the course of 2 weeks to 69 patients suffering from anxiety or depression. The exercises consisted of a combination of yoga stretches and various breathing techniques (including abdominal breathing, rhythmic acceleration and deceleration, and breathing through the opposite nostril). When the study was over, the researchers saw a marked improvement in patients' symptoms. Moreover, with only once-weekly follow-up sessions and some home practise during this time, progress was maintained two and six months later.

The small physical tension that builds up as a result of stress can also be alleviated by breathing exercises. Your therapist may suggest incorporating them into your day at regular intervals, such as when you take a break or are switching gears. All it takes is a moment to realign your body and focus on your breathing. The "365 approach" is recommended by many therapists: practise deep breathing for five minutes, three times daily, at a rate of six cycles per minute (five seconds in, five seconds out). Continue doing this each and every day. Some research even suggests that frequent breathing exercises can make people less prone to stress by permanently altering brain circuits, which is why they are so effective at offering instant relief. However, in an apparently counterintuitive approach, therapists may instruct their frightened clients to breathe quickly rather than slowly as part of an effort to teach them to manage their anxiety (see box "Inhale for Panic! ").

However, why should breathing exercises only be used to counteract unhappy feelings? It's also worthwhile to put them to use during enjoyable activities, as this allows one to savour and reflect about those times. In a nutshell, taking a moment to focus on your breathing may be both relaxing and enjoyable.


Breath-control techniques have long been recommended based on tradition and experience, and mounting evidence from scientific research supports this practise. However, more study is required, especially since several studies lacked control groups. There is one notable exception, however: those experiencing a panic attack due to worry about their physical status should not, in general, focus on breathing (also known as interoceptive anxiety). Anxiety may be made worse if one focuses on their physiological symptoms ("Now that I'm paying attention to it, my breathing doesn't seem normal. How come I feel like I'm choking? If I cease breathing, what will happen to me? These individuals would benefit from having a therapist observe them as they try out different breathing strategies.

We would all benefit from paying closer attention to our breathing on a regular basis if we consider how common emotional distress is and the harmful effects it has on our health. Take a few minutes out of your day to focus on your breathing and do so consciously and quietly multiple times per day. Like solar energy, breathing can be used to power relaxation at no cost and with virtually unlimited availability.

Reducing Stress with These Six Methods

The following are some standard methods of breathing. Exercise for as little as five to ten minutes can help with occasional stress and perhaps prevent panic episodes. Daily anxiety can be reduced with more practise.

The Correct Posture Is to Stand Up Straight

Standing or sitting, keep your back straight and your shoulders back to improve your breathing. Breathing is easier because of the freedom this position gives the respiratory muscles to move (of the diaphragm and between the ribs). If you have good posture, your body will be able to regulate its breathing on its own.

Take It One Breath at a Time*

Basically, just focus on being aware of your breathing, both while you're inhaling and exhaling. Pay attention to the way your chest and tummy move as air moves through them. It's normal for your mind to wander now and then; when it does, simply bring it back to your breathing.

Relating to the Stomach

When you inhale, imagine filling your stomach with air before expanding your chest; when you exhale, "empty" your stomach first, then your chest. This is called breathing "through your stomach." If you lie down and place one hand on your tummy, you can more easily monitor and evaluate this type of breathing.

Maintaining a Regular Breathing Pattern

Hold your breath for a count of three in your head at the conclusion of each breath, and then release it slowly. This counting practise can be done after each expiration or in the pauses between each breath. It is commonly prescribed to nervous individuals for the express purpose of reducing anxiety attacks by decreasing the patient's breathing.

Swap Nose*

Slowly inhale and exhale through one nostril while blocking the other with a finger, then switch and repeat the process on the other side. This exercise can be performed in a variety of ways, such as by breathing through one nostril and then the other. Breathing via the nose, which is somewhat more relaxing than breathing through the mouth, may be the most essential factor, according to the research.

Keep Calm and Think Comforting Thoughts

Simply telling yourself "I am inhaling calm" with each breath will help. Visualize your anxieties and concerns leaving your body with each exhalation (as in, "I am exhaling stress").

Research in humans has proven the efficacy of this method.

Panic! inhalation

While slow, even breathing might calm nerves, quick, shallow breathing can make you anxious. Anxious patients can be taught to face their fears by using this phenomenon in behavioural therapy. Deliberate hyperventilation causes patients to experience anxiety, which they eventually learn to cope with and view in context. They might also learn that stifled breathing contributes to an already heightened state of anxiety through this method.

And if you ever need a breathwork teacher, you know where to find me