True story: I was a deep breathing skeptic. I was that yoga class participant that would roll up her mat before savasana (a.k.a. corpse pose: the deep breathing, relaxing pose that winds up every yoga class) and tiptoe out of class while avoiding the instructor’s eye. Deep breathing did not make my list of priorities–I had stuff to do! I had places to be! There was just no time to just sit around breathing, for crying out loud.
Then I tried it, and I was hooked. Not only did it make me feel calmer and less stressed, but I discovered that the science bears it out. Deep breathing goes by many names–diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing or paced respiration–but call it what you will, it has been used successfully in therapeutic interventions to combat stress, anxiety and anger.
- Sit in a quiet space.
- Close your eyes or hold a soft gaze.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and remain focused throughout each cycle
- Completely exhale.
- Slowly inhale through the nose, filling lungs and expanding the ribcage.
- Consciously exhale through the mouth, emptying the lungs of air.
- Continue this cycle of inhaling and exhaling for 10 full breaths, going slowly and smoothly so as not to hyperventilate.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies stress as one of the biggest health concerns of our age. Plentiful research connects stress to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, emotional overeating and depression. (1) When we are stressed, our breathing becomes more rapid due to the “fight-or-flight” response. By deliberately controlling our breathing, we can stimulate another nervous system response: the relaxation response. (2)
Breathing exercises helped military veterans with PTSD, according to a study by Emma Seppala at Stanford. In 2010, 21 vets were taught deep breathing exercises from a particular yoga practice during a weeklong workshop. Assessments taken before, during, one month later and one year later showed showed that symptoms of PTSD and anxiety decreased in participants, even over the long term. (3)
Deep breathing has been shown to alleviate anxiety. One school in India administered an anxiety measurement survey to 100 adolescents, then taught a deep breathing exercise to the students. Participants were asked to practice deep breathing 30 minutes per day for 45 days. The follow-up survey showed that this intervention significantly reduced anxiety in the students. (4)
Another study of Indian students identified 60 underachievers from a cohort of 300 students. Each of the 60 students were given 20 minutes of deep breathing training followed by an hour of study skills training. While half of these students indicated very high anxiety scores before the intervention, only 2% self-reported very high anxiety after. Of those same 60 students, only 2% had low anxiety before and 25% reported low anxiety after the intervention. (5)
When we are angry, our breathing and heart rates increase and our breathing becomes more shallow. Deliberately slowing our breathing can help to control anger. Drivers with high levels of anger attending Colorado State University were given eight interventions that included deep breathing and some skill practice on anger control. Researchers found that the interventions decreased the frequency and intensity of angry episodes while behind the wheel. (6)
Anger management is often thought of in terms of outward indicators–refraining from hitting a wall or throwing a chair, or worse. However, it starts with controlling internal cues to anger, such as shallow, rapid breathing and increased heart rate. Deep breathing positively affects those internal anger indicators such that controlling actions becomes easier. (7)
More on proper deep breathing technique
Youtube link to practice deep breathing
Read this fascinating study on how altering our breathing patterns changes our mood
- Varvogli L and Darviri C. Stress management techniques: evidence-based procedures that reduce stress and promote health. Health Science Journal. 2011, 5(2):74-89.
- Relaxation techniques: breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard health Publications. Accessed Sep 9, 2016.
- Parker C. Stanford scholar helps veterans recover from war trauma. Stanford News: Stanford Report. Sep 5, 2014.
- Sellakumar G K. Effect of slow-deep breathing exercise to reduce anxiety among adolescent school students in a selected higher secondary school in Coimbatore, India. Journal of Psychological and Educational Research. 2015, 23(1):54-72.
- Menon P and Farhana B S. Anxiety and study skills in underachievers among high school students. Int J Cur Tr Res. 2013, 2(1):1-6.
- Dittman M. Anger on the road. America Psychological Association. 2005, 36(6):26.
- Adamowicz M. Anger management relaxation techniques. Mentalhelp.net. June 25, 2005, updated Oct 19, 2015.