Top 3 breathing techniques to relax
People strive to experience calmness and relaxation as much as possible. Even though your body responds to stressful situations to help you deal with them, you can get back to feeling relaxed in a shorter amount of time than it takes you to read this article. So get your stopwatch out and get ready to discover three science-based calming exercises for anxiety that will show you how to control breathing.
Should you fight, flee, freeze or fawn?
Imagine crossing the road in a rush. You suddenly hear a car slamming the brakes to stop in time. While everyone is safe and sound, your body is responding according to the acute stress that just happened. So, how do you respond?
The ‘fight or flight’ is your body’s natural survival instinct and reaction to stressful situations. The response is activated when you perceive a threat which quickly ignites the body’s ‘stress system’ called the sympathetic nervous system, preparing your body to face the threat or run away to safety. Some people may also freeze or fawn. You might have experienced freezing up before; you were unable to move or act as your body felt stiff. And even though your heart was pumping quickly and your breathing was as fast as it would be in a fight or flight response, you stayed still. Fawning is harder to recognise as it’s a more subtle mechanism. Say you’re in the middle of a disagreement with your manager. The manager gets defensive and your body perceives that as a stressful situation so you start behaving in a way that you think would please your manager to avoid conflict with them.
When you perceive something as stressful, a small part of your brain called the hypothalamus activates the body’s stress system; you get flushed with stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Their job is to provide you with enough energy to deal with the stressful situation you’re in. Since every human is unique, your experience of stress can vary although the usual physiological responses include quicker breathing, higher heart rate and racing thoughts. After the perceived danger is gone, your body usually returns to its normal state once again by igniting the body’s ‘anti-stress system’ called the parasympathetic nervous system.
However, if you feel like a stress response is persisting, you may want to help your body relax by doing a relaxation technique. Breathing has been linked to the body’s ‘anti-stress system’[5,6]. That means you can affect your physical response and feelings by behaving in a certain way; breathing for mental health. An interesting study was conducted by American and German researchers in 2007. They researched the effects of short and simple instructions for breathing. They found out that paying attention to breathing reduced the breathing rate while all participants felt more relaxed when breathing more deeply. Discover below three breathing techniques to relax.
Breathe with your belly
Have you ever heard about diaphragmatic or deep breathing? Those terms describe a breathing technique praised for its ability to relax and calm you both psychologically and physiologically[9,10,11].
This breathing technique requires you to breathe with your belly. In contrast to shallow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing happens when you expand the abdomen rather than the chest during breathing in. Here is how you do it:
- Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your head supported. You can also use a pillow under your knees to support your legs. You may prefer sitting comfortably, with your knees bent and your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed.
- Put one hand on your upper chest and the other just below the rib cage. Feel your diaphragm move as you breathe.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose letting your stomach move out. The hand on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- Tighten your stomach muscles, moving your stomach in, while exhaling through pursed lips. The hand on your chest should again remain as still as possible.
- Breathe slowly for as long as you wish.
Nadi shodhana pranayama or alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is a yogic ‘subtle energy-clearing breathing technique’. This type of breath control practice can be done as part of a yoga or meditation practice and in the form of breathing exercises to calm down your mind.
One of the main benefits of alternate nostril breathing is that it may lower stress[5,12]. A 2018 study found that men who practised alternate nostril breathing for 30 minutes per day perceived less stress after 3 months of regular practice.
Pranayama techniques are best practised while sitting on the floor on a blanket or a carpet or a mat. You’ll find that it’s best to do it in the early morning hours or after sunset with closed eyes.
- Close the right nostril with the right thumb.
- Inhale slowly through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril by pressing on it with the ring finger of the right hand.
- Exhale slowly through the right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril.
- Close the right nostril by pressing it with the right thumb.
- Breathe out slowly through the left nostril.
- Repeat that process at least 10 - 15 times.
The magic of the physiological sigh
Throughout history, relationships between emotions and breathing were studied. Recently, researchers found that one of the breathing manoeuvres called sighing is related to feelings such as relaxation, calmness, and serenity. Sighs are physiologically defined as distinct deep breaths and two interesting studies from 2022 found that they may function as psychophysiological resetters, meaning they contribute to mental and physical flexibility and the regulation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviours to generate a balance[16,17]. A study which was just published in January 2023 found that only five minutes of physiological sighs or sometimes referred to as cyclic breathing per day is effective at reducing stress and improving mood.
Physiological sighs are usually instinctive in stressful situations. When you’re perceiving a threat, your respiratory rate typically increases while breathing becomes shallower because the CO2 levels in the blood naturally increase. Sighing helps remove CO2 from your body more efficiently while sending a message to your brain to slow down your heart rate. While it’s usually done by breathing in through your nose, you can also inhale through your mouth. So, how to do a physiological sigh?
- Inhale through your nose.
- Take a second short inhale.
- Breathe out, long and slow, through your mouth.
And voilà, you can enjoy more feelings of relaxation when you have the need.
Try calming yourself with your diet
Some people search for additional help to perform breathing techniques to help them calm down and your diet can help you relax. Have you ever heard of the calming effects of green tea? It all comes down to a compound called L-theanine which is naturally found in tea leaves and has been shown to promote relaxation without sedation. A Japanese study showed that 200mg of L-theanine reduced subjective stress response and evidence also links L-theanine with the amplification of the ‘relaxed and alert brain waves’ called alpha brain waves which are associated with wakeful relaxation. For a relaxing effect, you would have to consume up to 15 cups of green tea. You might want to opt for an L-theanine supplement as green tea also contains antioxidants that can hinder iron absorption and caffeine that serves as a laxative.
If you need help with your breathing techniques try this fast-acting supplement that brain feed has developed. Their L-theanine is naturally extracted from green tea. 1 capsule provides 250mg of L-theanine which is equivalent to 15-20 cups of green tea. If you’re a new customer you can get an additional 15% off your 1st order using the code ‘NEW15’ at checkout.
Now pause your stopwatch. You’ve just learned about the different stress responses and discovered three science-based breathing techniques that can help you feel calm again. It’s time for you to try one or all of them out.
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