"Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again." — L. Frank Baum
Breathing is essential for life, but it is also a powerful tool for mental health. When we are stressed or anxious, our breathing tends to become shallow and rapid. This can further worsen our anxiety and make it difficult to think clearly. How can we confront this in the moment?
Deep breathing exercises can help to calm the mind and body. By mindfully slowing down our breath and focusing on deep, diaphragmatic, or “belly” breathing, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the "rest and digest" response. This can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and heart rate.
There are many different breathing exercises that can be used to help calm anxiety and stress. Some popular exercises include:
4-7-8 breathing: This exercise is simple and can be done anywhere. Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat this cycle for four to five minutes.
Diaphragmatic “belly” breathing: To do diaphragmatic breathing, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you inhale, your stomach should rise and your chest should remain relatively still. As you exhale, your stomach should fall. Practice diaphragmatic breathing for five to 10 minutes at a time.
Alternate nostril breathing: To do alternate nostril breathing, sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight. Close your right nostril with your right thumb and inhale slowly through your left nostril. Then, close your left nostril with your right ring finger and exhale slowly through your right nostril. Continue alternating nostrils for five to 10 minutes.
One minute meditation: If you find yourself pressed for time, taking one minute to yourself, finding a quiet space, then closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing can help you to refocus, reframe and repurpose the energy you are using on stress and anxiety in the moment to more productive endeavors. The great part about this exercise is that we can often carve out one minute of time during our day and the reward for pausing can be immensely helpful to us. If it doesn’t provide relief in that one minute, there are 1,439 more opportunities to do this throughout the day.
Breathing exercises can be practiced at any time, but they can be especially helpful when you are feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. You can also incorporate breathing exercises into your daily routine, such as doing them before bed or in the morning.
If you are new to breathing exercises, start slowly and gradually increase the amount of time you spend practicing. It is also important to find a breathing exercise that works for you and that you enjoy doing.
Here are some additional tips for using breathing exercises for mental health:
Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed.
Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
Breathe deeply and slowly, allowing your stomach to rise and fall.
If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
Be patient and consistent with your practice. It may take some time to see the benefits of breathing exercises.
If you are struggling with a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Breathing exercises can be a helpful addition to traditional treatment methods.
Timothy Kanczuga, MSN, RN, FNP-BC is a board certified family nurse practitioner at the Brattleboro Retreat.