How To Reduce Stress and Anxiety Through Controlled Belly Breathing
Last updated March 12, 2018
“The process of breathing is the most accurate metaphor we have for the way that we personally approach life, how we live our lives, and how we react to the inevitable changes that life brings us.”
– Donna Farhi, Author of: “The Breathing Book: Good Health & Vitality Through Essential Breath Work”
Today, you’ll take between 17,280 – 23,040 breaths. (1)
Since breathing is something you do automatically, you probably don’t give it much thought.
And yet, something as overlooked as your own breath can be one of the most potent stress-busting assets you already have at your disposal.
If you know how to interpret it, you’ll be able to see that your breath is reflecting your:
- mental and emotional state
- unconscious reactions
- responses to your internal and external environment
Believe it or not, your breath can even reflect the state of your metabolism.
Your breath can be your ally or your foe, depending on who’s in control – you or it.
If you don’t lead your breath, your breath will lead you.
When you face the hyper-arousing, over-extending, and sometimes overwhelming side of life, who’s usually in control of your breathing?
Your stress response or you?
Being unknowingly and chronically overtaken by your stress response means you’re not leveraging your breath. Rather, that your breath is working against you.
This makes it harder to effectively and efficiently manage everything you’re juggling right now. You’ll be less equipped to face whatever curveballs and challenges are thrown your way.
But you can regain control.
When you take back your breath through mindful awareness and intentional control, you take back your physiology.
When you take back your physiology, you take control of your mind, mood, emotions, and body. (And your life juggling skills improve, too.)
Keep reading and I’ll show you exactly why and how…
The Breath of Life
Oxygen IS the breath of life.
It is a carrier for what the Chinese call Chi, the Japanese call Ki, and the yogis call Prana… Life Force.
The breathing process consists of two phases, the inspiration (inhalation) and expiration (exhalation.)
The word inspire literally means ‘to breath life into.’
You’re filling your being up with life force, with every controlled, deep breath.
Inspiration (done properly) begins with the intake of oxygen-rich air in through the nostrils, down the throat, all the way into the bottom half of your lungs.
Here’s a short video detailing the breathing process:
The lower half of your lungs is the thickest and most closely compacted, which means more oxygen can enter the bloodstream.
Consciously breathing into the lower half of your lungs (more on how to do this correctly below), literally allows you to ‘breath more life into’… you.
Oxygenated blood travels to the heart, where it’s pumped to the rest of the body via blood vessels that move into surrounding tissues. Ultimately, oxygen reaches every cell that makes up the body. (2)
Almost all cells in your body NEED oxygen to survive.
Literally and metaphorically, breathing IS breathing more life into you and the majority of your +/- 30 trillion cells.
10 Scientifically Proven Health
Benefits of Deep Breathing:
Breathing and controlling your breath is one of the easiest ways to improve mental and physical health.
– The Wall Street Journal
The body needs three main forms of nourishment to survive: food, water, and air.
You can live up to three weeks without food. You can live a few days without water, but you can only live a few minutes if you stop breathing.
Your brain can only survive around 6 minutes without oxygen before it starts dying. (3)
Proper deep breathing has proven to:
1. Improve respiratory function, by relaxing tight chest (4) muscles and by increasing lung capacity (5).
2. Lower heart rate and blood pressure, and is even recognized by the FDA in the treatment and regulation of hypertension. (6)
It also improves circulatory system function by maximizing the delivery of oxygen to the bloodstream and to each of the trillions of cells in your body.
3. Maintain blood pH levels (the scale of alkalinity to acidity.) (7) Blood acidity is neutralized with the release of carbon dioxide from the lungs. Deep, slow breathing helps the brain and lungs continuously optimize pH levels. (8)
4. Engage your diaphragm internally which in turn massages your abdominal organs and glands, stimulating them and promoting their healthy and optimal function. (9)
5. Boost the immune system because as the diaphragm massages the internal organs and glands it helps move lymph (fluid containing the immune system’s white blood cells) throughout the body to their targeted locations. (10)
6. Detoxify the body. Controlled breathing stimulates lymphatic movement. One of the key functions of your lymphatic system is to flush toxins out of your body. Your lungs are also a major excretory organ. With every maximized exhale, you expel waste, toxins, and excess carbon dioxide from your system. (11)
7. Maintain healthy digestive function and help ease upset tummies. The same diaphragmatic massaging motion that helps flush toxins also helps stimulate blood flow of your intestinal tract, ensuring your gut muscles keep on moving as they’re intended to. Breathing deeply can help prevent acid reflux, bloating, hiatal hernia, and intestinal spasms. (12)
Deep breathing also helps quell the stress response, which compromises digestion. It’s worthy to note here that multiple studies and research confirm a high correlation between digestive/ gastrointestinal issues (i.e.: IBS) and mental health imbalances such as anxiety and depression. (13)
8. Increase theta brain waves. (14) Theta brainwaves are associated with the state of deep relaxation and dreaming sleep, as well as increased creativity, super-learning, integrative experiences, and increased memory. (15)
9. Activate your relaxation/rest response. This is because your breath acts as a switching station for your nervous system, specifically between the two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system (stress response), and the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation/rest response.)
Deep, slow breathing de-stresses and relaxes you, and also engages your sympathetic in ways that work for you, not against you. In this way, deep breathing helps send your body signals of safety so that you can enter into a higher state of functioning – one that is healing, regenerating, and conducive to sustained fulfillment and thriving. (16)
10. Be an effective option for treating emotional and mental health conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. (17)
Just do a Google search and you’ll find numerous studies and other literature published on this subject, like this one published in the Journal of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback:
The Breath-Emotion Loop
– How Losing Control One Means Losing Control Of The Other
Emotions and breath are known to have a deep relationship.
Animals such as the rat and rabbit have fast breathing and so are extremely nervous, mentally unstable, emotionally restless, and live only for short period of time.
In contrast, the elephant and turtle are slow, deep breathers and consequently have calmer personality and longer lives.
– Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, Yoga researcher
HOW BREATH IMPACTS EMOTIONS:
Emotions and breathing rhythms have a two-way, symbiotic relationship because they both impact one another.
This creates what I call the Breath-Emotion Loop.
Breathing rhythms (aka: the way you breathe) can be fast or slow, shallow or deep, short or long.
Breathing rhythms send messages to your body that affect your mood, your stress levels, and even your immunity. (18)
One study by Northwestern University on how breathing rhythms impact fear, emotional recognition, and memory found how breathing links to changes in behavior:
“The rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that enhances emotional judgments and memory recall. These effects on behavior depend critically on whether you inhale or exhale and whether you breathe in through the nose or mouth.” (19)
Their tests recorded brain activity fluctuating with breathing, thus indicating a direct connection between the two.
The way you breathe can literally change your emotional and mental state.
If you breathe fast and shallow, your brain’s arousal center becomes hyperactivated. This can lead to increased alertness, wakefulness, excitement, or anxiousness.
If you breathe slow, deep, and long, you’ll become calmer because the arousal part of your brain isn’t being activated. (20)
THE REVERSE: HOW EMOTIONS IMPACT BREATHING:
Heightened emotional states influence the body’s breathing mechanism.
Feeling angry, anxious, excited, tense, or scared translates to short and shallow breathing.
Feeling relaxed, serene, or content translates to longer, slower, deeper breaths.
Our breath automatically responds to our emotional shifts. That is until we consciously control it.
Emotions cause changes in the body, and breathing is one of the bodily processes most impacted by emotions. (21)
The Two Types Of Breathing:
Automatic Breathing vs Behavioral Breathing
By changing patterns of breathing, we can change our emotional states and how we think and how we interact with the world.
– Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and clinician-researcher
If you can control your breath, you can control your emotions.
It’s that simple.
In order to control your breath, though, you must first learn to master behavioral (conscious) breathing.
Your body regulates breathing based on two types of controls, one unconscious and one conscious: the metabolic control and the behavioral control.
Metabolic breathing is also called automatic breathing because it happens without your conscious or voluntary control or effort. With automatic breathing, your body is 100% in control.
It just does its thing and carries on with the oxygen – carbon dioxide exchange without giving it a second’s thought.
Your respiratory system knows exactly how to control your breathing rate by the levels of carbon dioxide, oxygen and acidity in your blood. (22)
Behavioral breathing, on the other hand, is voluntary breathing; it requires some level of conscious and cognitive mental processing and attention.
It’s influenced by internal and external environmental changes, our responses to those changes, and also influenced by mental and emotional stimuli, such as stress. (21)
You practice behavioral breathing when you engage in activities like: speaking on the phone, playing an instrument (think: flute and trumpet), or singing in the shower.
Behavioral breathing influences automatic breathing.
Conscious breathing can override unconscious breathing.
What is controlled breathing vs stress breathing?
Let’s do a little exercise right now. Stop what you’re doing and sit comfortably. Pay attention to your breathing rhythm as it currently is. Without doing anything else, just notice it. Follow along with your body as you inhale and exhale at this present pace.
Now, follow the emblem below as it prompts you to inhale and exhale. Imagine the emblem representing your lungs as they expand with each inhalation and contract with each expiration.
What you just did is controlled breathing.
It’s likely not the first time you’ve practiced something like this.
It’s breathing in a way that is controlled (voluntary and intentional).
It’s simply consciously controlling your breath, instead of it controlling you.
With controlled breathing, we’re aware and cognizant of our breath and we’re paying attention to it. We’re observing it.
As we just saw, certain emotional states can ‘hijack’ our breathing, often times without us even being aware of it.
Controlled Breathing is the perfect antidote to counter the detrimental effects of what I call Stress Breathing.
Stress Breathing is the reactive, hijacking breathing pattern that is characterized as being short and shallow, or even holding the breath.
Stress Breathing sends signals to your brain that your environment is unsafe, and so, your body riles up all of its systems to enter defense mode.
Your body braces for incoming threats, whether they be perceived or real.
If you’re like me (and millions of others), and you consistently experience chronic stress and anxiety, chances are that much of the time, you’re Stress Breathing and don’t even know it.
This can be incredibly taxing on your health, immunity, and energy reserves, not to mention your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Summary of controlled breathing vs. stress breathing:
How to take a deep breath properly
(and why you’re probably doing it wrong)
I used think this question was stupid, because… “who doesn’t know how to take a deep breath?” I thought.
I was wrong.
Most of us think we know how to take a deep breath.
After all, we hear it everywhere these days: “Calm down,” “take a deep breath,” “relax.”
But the truth is that most of us are doing it wrong.
If you experience chronic stress and/or anxiety, chances are you’re Stress Breathing instead.
This means you’re breathing with your chest and your upper respiratory area instead of breathing with our abdomen and lower respiratory area.
True, regenerating deep breathing… is belly breathing.
You know you’re breathing deeply when your lower belly rises when you fill your lungs with air.
Belly breathing is also known as abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing because it engages the diaphragm. (23)
I didn’t really know what or where exactly my diaphragm was until I started researching the health effects of belly breathing.
When we inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downward towards the abdominal organs. The lungs move downward with it as they expand and fill with oxygen.
When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upwards while pressing on the lungs, this helps release carbon dioxide.
How belly breathing reduces stress
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and author
Optimized, controlled belly breathing helps us manage stress and our emotions more efficiently and effectively.
When the diaphragm is engaged during belly breathing, it can fully expand and contract, which maximizes breathing by ensuring optimal oxygen – carbon dioxide exchange.
Here’s a visual of what diaphragmatic movement looks like:
This means more oxygen can make its way to each of our cells, which ensures the cells can perform proper respiration and convert that oxygen into energy for us to function at our best, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Because belly breathing also helps send signals of safety to the body.
When the body receives this signal it can relax and rest, allowing for growth, regeneration, and repair to occur.
CHEST BREATHING VS. BELLY BREATHING:
Chest breathing (stress breathing) is shallow, short breathing, which constricts the diaphragm’s movement.
Harvard Health Publishing explains:
“Shallow breathing hobbles the diaphragm’s range of motion. The lowest portion of the lungs — which is where many small blood vessels instrumental in carrying oxygen to cells reside — never gets a full share of oxygenated air. That can make you feel short of breath and anxious.
Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.” (23)
SLOW BELLY BREATHING + YOUR BRAIN:
Scientists have proven there’s a direct link between the brain’s breathing center and the brain’s stress center.
When you intentionally slow down your breathing, you soothe the stress center, which of course, makes it easier to remain calm.
University of California physiologist Kevin Yackle, Ph.D. is the lead researcher of the study that found a group of specific neurons (cells that receive, process, and transmit information) directly linking the brain’s breathing and stress centers.
In an interview with science website Inverse, he says “… If you were hyperventilating, these neurons would be more active, and then they would activate this other brain center more, which would then cause more arousal. And then the opposite, if you had slow breathing, you have less activation in the center, which would lead to more calmness.” (24)
Nostril breathing vs. mouth breathing
Remember the last time you had a bad cold and your nasal airways were swollen and closed off? This leads to momentary mouth breathing. Some of us have developed the habit of chronic mouth breathing and we may not even be aware of it.
Some might also think that ‘deep breathing’ or other controlled breathing exercises done via an open mouth offer the same benefits, but they don’t. Quite the opposite.
Optimal breathing is nostril breathing, and for various reasons:
– Nostril breathing protects us from various harmful external particles like dust, bacteria, and microbes via tiny little hairs called cilia. These hairs clean, warm, and humidify the incoming air and guard us from as many as 20 billion outside particles daily. (25)
– Nostril exhaling creates more air pressure and slows the exhalation down because it is a smaller orifice than the mouth. This helps the lungs optimize oxygen intake. (26)
Nose breathing imposes approximately 50 percent more resistance to the air stream, as compared to mouth breathing. This results in 10 to 20 percent more oxygen uptake.
– Dr Alan Ruth, Behavioural Medicine Practitioner
– Helps us engage our diaphragm more efficiently. (27)
– Nostril inhalation increases nitric oxide intake, which helps ensure smooth transportation of more oxygen throughout the whole body. (27)
Here’s why you’ll want to switch from mouth breathing to nostril breathing:
– Chronic mouth breathing can lead to chronic over-breathing and chest breathing.
– Mouth breathing signals to your brain that carbon dioxide levels are quickly decreasing, so the body produces more mucus as an attempt to get you to breathe more slowly. (26)
– Chronic mouth breathing can alter your facial structure and change your facial features. For example it can make your face and jaw more narrow and droopy, which can lead to obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. (28)
– Chronic mouth breathing dries the mucous lining of the airways, and it doesn’t warm or moisturize air like nostril breathing does, so it also doesn’t protect from pathogens and allergens either. (29)
– Mouth breathing can lead to trauma to soft tissues in the airways as well as enlarged tonsils and adenoids. (27)
Temporary mouth breathing due to a cold for example is not the same as chronic mouth breathing, which involves a learned state. This will require some reprogramming of habits and behaviors to correct.
Physician and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Joseph Mercola explains the dangers of mouth breathing like this: (18)
“Most people believe that taking bigger breaths through your mouth allows you to take more oxygen into your body, which should make you feel better and more clear-headed. However, the opposite actually happens.
Deep mouth breathing tends to make you feel light-headed, and this is due to eliminating too much carbon dioxide from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict. So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen is actually delivered throughout your body.
And, contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, it’s important to maintain a certain amount of it in your lungs — and for that, you need to maintain a normal breathing volume.
When too much carbon dioxide is lost through heavy breathing, it causes the smooth muscles embedded in your airways to constrict. When this happens, there is a feeling of not getting enough air and the natural reaction is to breathe more intensely.
But this simply causes an even greater loss of carbon dioxide, which constricts your airway even further. To remedy the situation you need to break this negative feedback loop by breathing through your nose and breathing less.”
A Simple, Effective Controlled Breathing Exercise Proven to Immediately Calm Stress and Anxiety
Balancing Breath Technique
Balancing Breath is an ultra-simple, evidence-based breathing technique that can be effectively completed in just a minute. Literally.
Though the body responds positively to this technique in 60 seconds, the longer you practice it, the more benefits you’ll gain from it.
This technique is based on breathing at a 10-second rhythm, 5 seconds inhaling followed by 5 seconds exhaling.
Breathing at this rate has been proven to increase your heart’s rhythm variability (HRV) which has been shown to shift us into a more physiologically coherent state. (30)
This means that practicing Balancing Breath Technique helps the body function more efficiently and optimally, which facilitates the parasympathetic activation of your nervous system (relaxation response), which in turn increases your resilience to stress and anxiety.
BALANCING BREATH PROVEN BENEFITS: (30)
- regulates your stress response (so you’re less reactive, more proactive and in control.)
- Balances your emotional perceptions and experience (so you are more likely to perceive and process things as they really are, from an equilibrated stance.)
- Enhances your thinking and processing abilities (so you’re able to make wiser choices and perform better.)
- Increases HRV and parasympathetic activity
- Balances your nervous system
- Boosts immunity
- Increases Alpha brain waves, associated with relaxation and creativity
Complete at minimum x6 rounds of 10-second rhythm cycles (Remember: each full cycle = 1 inhale + 1 exhale)
Step 1 – begin to focus on your breathing, connect with the inflow and outflow as it is naturally, right now
Step 2 – Intentionally slow your breath and deepen it slightly by belly breathing
Step 3 – Inhale for 5 counts
Step 4 – Exhale for 5 counts
Step 5 – Repeat Steps 3 and 4 a minimum 6 cycles, although 30 cycles is ideal and optimal. (6 cycles = 60 seconds, 30 cycles = 5 minutes )
Follow along with the emblem as you inhale and exhale. Imagine your lungs expanding with air as you breath in for 5 and then contracting as you breathe out for 5:
(9) Wayne, Peter (2013-04-09). The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind (Harvard Health Publications) (p. 174). Shambhala.
(10) Jahnke O.M.D., Roger (2013-07-02). The Healer Within: Using Traditional Chinese Techniques To Release Your Body’s Own Medicine *Movement *Massage *Meditation *Breathing (p. 40). HarperCollins.
(12) Matveikova, Irina (2014-06-16). Digestive Intelligence: A Holistic View of Your Second Brain (p. 159). Findhorn Press.
(13) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19552631(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16624497
(25) Yahya, Harun (2003). Miracles in Our Bodies (p.93). Goodword Books.