The Benefits of Mindful Breathing

On average, our lungs breathe in and out around 20,000 times a day, something we do without putting much thought into it. As simple as this may seem, breathing is a process that requires our nose, mouth, throat, trachea, lungs, diaphragm, and other surrounding muscles to work together in tandem to get oxygen to our cells and produce the carbon dioxide we breathe out.

The way in which we breathe affects many aspects of our health, including brain function, blood pressure, sleep, mood, and the body’s ability to fight inflammation. Though most people aren’t aware of their own breathing patterns, many of us are shallow chest breathers. This means we use our intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) to inhale short breaths of air. These repeated short, shallow breaths result in less air getting into the lungs.

the benefits of mindful breathing

Shallow breathing day in and day out causes a stress response in our sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic controls our “fight-or-flight response” while the parasympathetic is responsible for the calming “rest and digest” response. With shallow breathing, our bodies become primed for chronic tension with tight muscles, rounded shoulders, neck pain, headaches, fatigue, increased heart rate, and anxiety. On an even deeper level, shallow breathing over a long period of time can lower lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that plays an important role in fighting infections in our bodies.

Conversely, deep breathing or breathing from the diaphragm (the muscle below the lungs) draws more air into the lungs. With deep breathing, deep breaths are achieved by inhaling through the nose and breathing out through the mouth. Our stomach muscles, abdomen, and diaphragm are all fully engaged with deep, diaphragmatic breathing. When we become mindful of our breathing, we can control the quality of our breaths and over time reset our breathing patterns to long, deep breaths. Deep breathing, or breathing from the diaphragm, can:

  • Release endorphins from the brain to promote a sense of relaxation by decreasing anxiety (this can be very helpful when trying to fall asleep)
  • Relieve stress from the body which will decrease fatigue
  • Release muscle tension and decrease pain
  • Improve the cardiovascular system’s ability to respond to stressors
  • Improve immunity and decrease inflammation in the body
  • Improve cognitive abilities
  • Improve insomnia
  • Improve mood
  • Improve certain types of headaches
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve exercise tolerance
  • Improve certain lung conditions (e.g., asthma or COPD)

 

Wiseman Health Take-Home Advice

 If you have any medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, it is important to see your medical provider before any breathwork. 

  • One of the easiest and most effective breathing exercises is the 4–7–8 breathing technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. While sitting down in a quiet space with your lips closed, inhale softly through your nose while mentally counting to 4 until your lungs are fully inflated. Hold your breath while counting to 7. Then exhale your complete breath through your mouth, counting to 8 and fully exhaling your lungs. That equals one breath cycle. You can do 4 to 8 breath cycles in one session. Beginners should start with 4 cycles and after a month can increase breath cycles. This can be done twice a day or whenever you are feeling anxious. Watch how to do this breathing technique here.
  • Turn your cardiovascular exercise into a breathing exercise session. For example: At various times during a run, focus on each lung inhalation and exhalation and make them as complete and mindful as possible.
  • Practice exercises that incorporate breath work with movement, such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Controlled breathing essentially begins with mindfulness — the awareness of how you are breathing. Much like meditation there is a mind-and-body connection with each breath you take. You can even think of your breathing work as purposeful, breath-focused meditation. Incorporate breath techniques into your meditation routine. When meditating, you can also use guided imagery to visualize a place where you feel calm. Keep this image in mind while inhaling slowly and exhaling slowly. The purpose of this kind of breath exercise is to draw in calm with each inhale and release tension on each exhale. Your breathing should be calm, slow, and rhythmic throughout.
  • To learn more about guided meditation and breath-focused meditation, try these smartphone apps: Waking Up, Calm, and Headspace.
  • Breathwork, like meditation, is a practice. The more consistent you can be on a weekly basis, the more long-term health benefits you will achieve. It is always best to practice breathwork sitting or lying down in a quiet and safe area, preferably outside in nature.

Editor’s Note: This content was created by our Wiseman Health content and writing team, without the influence of artificial intelligence engines. Our goal is to be your trusted source for natural health and medical information. This article was originally published on February 16, 2022 and has since been updated.

Rifkin, R. How shallow breathing affects your whole body. headspace.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.headspace.com/articles/shallow-breathing-whole-body

Jewell, T. and Hoshaw, C. (2021, November 5). What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing? healthline.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing#whats-happening

Fletcher, J. (2019, February 19). How to Use 4-7-8 Breathing for Anxiety. medicalnewstoday.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324417.php

Majsiak, B. (2019, April 26). 5 Ways to Practice Breath-Focused Meditation. everydayhealth.com. Retrieved December 9, 2021. https://www.everydayhealth.com/alternative-health/living-with/ways-practice-breath-focused-meditation/

Raypole, C. (2020, May 28). 5 Visualization Techniques to Add to Your Meditation Practice. healthline.com.Retrieved December 9, 2021.   https://www.healthline.com/health/visualization-meditation#color-breathing