Breathing for Life: The Mind-Body Healing Benefits of Breathing Exercises
“Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.” Andrew Weil, M.D.
Breath is essential to life. It is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do when we leave. In between that time, we take about half a billion breaths. What we may not realize is that the mind, body, and breath are intimately connected and can influence each other. Our breathing is influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts and physiology can be influenced by our breath.
Researchers have documented the benefits of a regular practice of simple, deep breathing which include:
Reduced anxiety and depression
Lower/stabilized blood pressure
Increased energy levels
Decreased feelings of stress and overwhelm
In the medical community, there is a growing appreciation for the positive impact that deep breathing can have on the physiology, both in the mind and the body. According to the research, many of these beneficial effects can be attributed to reducing the stress response in the body. To understand how this works, let’s look at the stress response in more detail. Please consult your physician if you you have any medical concerns before beginning these exercises. If at any point you feel light-headed or dizzy, stop and consult a doctor.
Breathing Exercises as a Tool to Counter Stress
When you experience stressful thoughts, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s ancient fight-or-flight response, giving you a burst of energy to respond to the perceived danger. Your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and you primarily breathe from the chest and not the lower lungs. This can make you feel short of breath, which is a common symptom when you feel anxious or frustrated. At the same time, your body produces a surge of hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which increase your blood pressure and pulse rate and put you in a revved up state of high alert.
With deep breathing, you can reverse these symptoms instantly and create a sense of calm in your mind and body. When you breathe deeply and slowly, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses the stress response in your body. Deep breathing stimulates the main nerve in the parasympathetic nervous system—the vagus nerve—slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and calming your body and mind.
If you’ve ever watched a baby breathe, you see the rise and fall of their belly. They have yet to be introduced to the minds stress inducing thoughts and emotional upsets of the world. As we grow older, we find our breath becomes shorter and more shallow. And sometimes, we find we hold our breath.
Here are three breathing exercises to help you overcome stress and anxiety (and a bunch of other benefits too!)
1. The 4 – 7 – 8 Breathing Technique
To practice 4-7-8 breathing, find a place to sit or lie down comfortably for this deep breathing meditation. Be sure you practice good posture, especially when starting out. If you’re using the technique to fall asleep, lying down is best.
Prepare for the practice by resting the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, right behind your top front teeth. You’ll need to keep your tongue in place throughout the practice. It takes practice to keep from moving your tongue when you exhale. Exhaling during 4-7-8 breathing can be easier for some people when they purse their lips.
The following steps should all be carried out in the cycle of one breath:
First, let your lips part. Make a whooshing sound, exhaling completely through your mouth.
Next, close your lips, inhaling silently through your nose as you count to four in your head.
Then, for seven seconds, hold your breath for two seconds.
Make another whooshing exhale from your mouth for eight seconds.
When you inhale again, you initiate a new cycle of breath. Practice this pattern of deep breathing meditation for four full breaths.
The held breath (for seven seconds) is the most critical part of this practice. It’s also recommended that you only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when you’re first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full breaths.
This breathing technique shouldn’t be practiced in a setting where you’re not prepared to fully relax. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be used for falling asleep, it can still put the practitioner into a state of deep relaxation. Make sure you don’t need to be fully alert immediately after practicing your calming techniques.
Why this is so powerful: Techniques like 4-7-8 can give your organs and tissues a much-needed oxygen boost. This technique forces the mind and body to focus on regulating the breath, rather than replaying your worries when you lie down at night. Proponents claim it can soothe a racing heart or calm frazzled nerves. Dr. Weil has even described it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
2. Belly Breathing
When we breathe from our belly, it is a much deeper breath than the shallow breathing we do from our upper lungs. When breathing from a relaxed diaphragm, there is no effort. We allow the correct mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur. This belly breathing is the secret to enriching our cells with oxygen. It enhances our mental function and relaxes our anxieties.
If we pay attention to the deepest part of our breath at the bottom of our expiration we can feel the natural return to inspiration. There is no effort. This is the basis for the most common forms of deep breathing meditation.
We don’t have to close our eyes. In fact, the best time to pay attention to our breath is when we are in a stressful situation. Instead of becoming anxious waiting for the light to turn, breathe from your belly. In fact, don’t try to manipulate your breathing, just feel how deep it sinks. This is the secret from athletes to people who have panic attacks. It is in your control.
How to practice belly breathing:
Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly
Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, making sure your belly expands like a balloon. You should feel your belly rise while your chest remains still.
When you get to the TOP of your breath at the count of four, hold for two seconds. Then,
Exhale through your nose for a count of four. As you do, draw your belly button towards your spine. Again, keeping your chest still.
At first, belly breathing may be difficult. Remember, we have been shallow breathing for a long time!
Do this for at least three counts (inhales and exhales).
3. Alternate Nostril Breathing
This is a powerful deep breathing meditation with wide reaching benefits. Some of those benefits include:
Infuses the body with oxygen
Clears and releases toxins
Reduces stress and anxiety
Calms and rejuvenates the nervous system
Helps to balance hormones
Supports clear and balanced respiratory channels
Helps to alleviate respiratory allergies that cause hay fever, sneezing, or wheezing
Fosters mental clarity and an alert mind
Enhances the ability to concentrate
Brings balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain
This breathing practice may take a few tries to get the hang of it, but it is so incredibly powerful and an amazing calming technique.
Take a comfortable and tall seat, making sure your spine is straight and your heart is open.
Relax your left palm comfortably into your lap and bring your right hand just in front of your face.
With your right hand, bring your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows, lightly using them as an anchor. The fingers we’ll be actively using are the thumb and ring finger.
Close your eyes and take a deep breath in and out through your nose.
Close your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily.
Close the left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are held closed; retain your breath at the top of the inhale for a brief pause.
Open your right nostril and release the breath slowly through the right side; pause briefly at the bottom of the exhale.
Inhale through the right side slowly.
Hold both nostrils closed (with ring finger and thumb).
Open your left nostril and release breath slowly through the left side. Pause briefly at the bottom.
Repeat 5-10 cycles, allowing your mind to follow your inhales and exhales.
Practicing deep breathing exercises regularly is a natural way to reduce stress and anxiety, sleep better and have better overall lung function.
Want to learn more about meditation? Take my FREE online audible course on to learn more!
Nikki is a certified life coach and certified in workplace wellness leadership, as well as a certified mediation and yoga teacher. Her office is located in Huntington Beach, CA and provides services in-person and online. She is the Co-Author of the Forthcoming Book Recipe for Success with Jack Canfield. She is available for training, workshops and speaking engagements.