U.S. Marine officer Jake’s vehicle drove over an explosive device in Afghanistan, he looked down to see his legs almost completely severed below the knee. At that moment, he remembered a breathing exercise he had learned in a book for young officers. Thanks to that exercise, he was able to stay calm enough to check on his men, give orders to call for help, tourniquet his own legs, and remember to prop them up before falling unconscious. Later, he was told that had he not done so, he would not have survived.
If a simple breathing exercise could help Jake under such extreme duress, similar techniques can certainly help the rest of us with our more common workplace stresses. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the anxiety that many of us feel and studies show that this stress is interfering with our ability to do our best work. With the right breathing exercises you can learn to handle your stress and manage negative emotions.
Research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing, and so changing how we breathe can change how we feel. For example, when you feel joy, your breathing will be regular, deep and slow. If you feel anxious or angry, your breathing will be irregular, short, fast, and shallow. When you follow breathing patterns associated with different emotions, you will begin to feel those corresponding emotions.
Stress reduction, insomnia prevention, emotion control, improved attention—certain breathing techniques can make life better. But where do you start?
- A growing number of studies show that breathing techniques are effective against anxiety and insomnia.
- These techniques influence both physiological factors (by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system) and psychological factors (by diverting attention from thoughts).
- Because these techniques are safe and easy to use, scientific validation might result in their being more frequently recommended and practiced.
What is the best time to apply slow-breathing techniques? One is during occasional episodes of stress—for example, before taking an exam, competing in a sporting event or even attending a routine meeting at work. Other studies suggest that you should do it every day.
5 easy tips for exercising your breathing
THINK PLEASANT THOUGHTS WHILE BREATHING
With each breath, think soothing thoughts (“I am inhaling calm”). With each exhalation, imagine that you are expelling your fears and worries (“I am exhaling stress”).
Posture is important for breathing: hold yourself straight, without stiffness, shoulders back, sitting or standing. This body posture facilitates the free play of the respiratory muscles (of the diaphragm and between the ribs). Good posture enables your body to breathe properly on its own.
FOLLOW YOUR BREATH
Simply observe your respiratory movement: be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Focus on the sensations you feel as air passes through your nose and throat or on the movements of your chest and belly. When you feel your thoughts drift (which is natural), redirect your attention to your breath.
Breathe “through your stomach” as much as possible: start by inflating your belly by inhaling, as if to fill it with air, then swell your chest; as you exhale, first “empty” your stomach, then your chest. This type of breathing is easier to observe and test while lying down, with one hand on your stomach.
BREATHING WITH RHYTHM
Near the end of each inhalation, pause briefly while mentally counting “1, 2, 3” and holding the air before exhaling. This counting while not breathing can also be done after exhaling or between each inhalation or exhalation. It is often recommended for anxious patients to calm anxiety attacks because it induces a beneficial slowing of the breathing rate.
You may want to try several different relaxation techniques to see which one works best for you and stick to the routine, practice every day for 10-20 minutes.