On the second morning of my clinical training, my teacher told me to arrive a half hour earlier than the day before.
“You’re kidding,” I thought. It’s a struggle to get up, get the kids ready for the babysitter, feed the animals, and get myself looking reasonable on a regular day. I rubbed the weird bumps on my temple that had appeared a few months earlier (stress bumps, I called them, since the dermatologist had no idea what they were).
A half hour earlier, really?
But, I managed it. I arrived, breathing hard, precisely 32 minutes before the clinic was scheduled to open.
I was surprised when my teacher motioned to me to go out the back door and onto the protected patio area. He pulled two cushions out of a Rubbermaid outdoor storage box and placed them on the slates of the patio.
We both sat cross legged on the cushions.
“Breathe in to the count of four. Let your belly relax and expand.
Hold for four.
Exhale for four. Let your body push the air out.
That’s all we did for the next 20 minutes. It took more concentration than you’d think for something we do without conscious effort most of the time.
The big surprise was, after a morning that started with me going a mile a minute, I felt calm, energized, and focused. And the feeling stayed with me the rest of the day.
As the months and years of my training went on, the daily breathing practice continued. And changed my life.
Your breath is a powerful tool to change your mood, your body, and your skin.
Breathing Can Help Manage Stress and Anxiety
You know the feeling you get when you’re under extreme stress. Your chest tightens, your breath becomes shallow and you can’t think clearly. Cortisol surges through your system giving you the “fight or flight” response.
That’s actually a good thing. Your body is perfectly designed to act like this when a tiger is about to eat you, or your enemy suddenly ambushes you. Once the danger has passed, your physiological response goes back to normal and you relax.
The problem is that these days that’s not how life generally works. Instead the stress is more low level, but constant.
Chronic stress is a big problem for lots of reasons. It triggers inflammation and damages our bodies, makes our skin look bad, and leads to mood problems like anxiety and depression.
When another stressor, like the coronavirus, quarantine, and loss of income come along, more anxiety and angst are inevitable. Which can damage your health even more.
Intentional or conscious breathing a is free, easy, and super effective way to help yourself.
Deep breathing (as opposed to the shallow chest breathing most of us do most of the time), expands your rib cage activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and relax” response.
There are many studies that document the role of the breath in mood. One study reported in the Journal of Neurophysiology says this:
Activity in the region of the amygdala suggests that a person’s rapid breathing rate may trigger brain states like anxiety, or feeling states, like anger or fear… Conversely, it may be possible to reduce fear and anxiety by slowing down the breath.
The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with emotions, memory, and survival instincts.
The ancients knew about the benefits of intentional breathing
Ancient cultures and medical systems like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda understood the importance of deep conscious breathing for health. This is part of the reason that practices like meditation, tai qi, and yoga work so well. (And why my teacher insisted on practicing it at the start of every day.)
Your mind and body function as one intricately interconnected whole. So, the benefits to your brain are also to the rest of you and vice versa.
Some the benefits of deep breathing that are more noticeable in your body:
- Improves your immunity. When your blood is fully oxygenated, it carries and absorbs nutrients and vitamins more efficiently. More infection fighting white blood cells are delivered to their targets.
- Pain relief. Deep breathing triggers the release of endorphins (those “feel good” chemicals), which not only help you feel good, but also combat pain.
- Stimulates your lymphatic system. Which is part of your body’s detox system. Breathing removes carbon monoxide from your blood. Carbon dioxide is a waste product.
- Improves your sleep and energy. For the same reasons, deep breathing calms the stress response, it allows you to have better sleep. Which can up your energy levels. Plus, more oxygen that is in your blood, the better your body functions.
- Helps lower your blood pressure. Your muscles relax, your blood vessels dilate, which improves circulation and lowers blood pressure. Deep breathing also slows and regulates your heart rate.
- Improves your digestion. Deep breaths allow more efficient blood flow to your organs, including digestive organs. Reduced cortisol and stress levels help your gut microbiome flourish.
- Makes your posture better. Next time you breathe in, notice that you simultaneously lengthen and straighten your spine. You can’t really breathe properly when you’re hunched over.
Deep Breathing is also great for your skin
Besides lifting your mood, and perking up your body, it’s no surprise that deep breathing brightens your complexion too.
Since deep breathing rids you of carbon dioxide waste products and infuses your cells oxygen and nutrients, it brightens dull skin and improves the health of your skin cells.
Practiced regularly, it reduces your stress response and cortisol release.
Over time, cortisol reduces our immune function and increases inflammation. Inflammation and stress are associated with increased collagen and elastin break down (which makes us have wrinkles and sagging skin).
Deep breathing minimizes this effect on your skin.
Get started with paced breathing
Even small doses of intentional paced deep breathing are beneficial. You can do it anywhere.
When you get up in the morning, outside, sitting on your couch… the key is to make it something you do every day, a couple of times of a day so that it becomes a routine that’s part of your life. It’s simple but not easy (to make it a regular habit), and so worth it,
Here are three methods to try:
- breathe in to a count of 4 (expand your belly so that air is drawn deep into your lungs).
- Hold for a count of 4.
- Exhale for a count of 4.
- Count to 4 before you begin your next breath.
Repeat for a few minutes. You can expand the length of the breaths (to a count of 5 or 6) over time if you’d like.
This one is particularly good for relieving anxiety and helping with sleep. It’s best to do it at least twice a day for at least four breath cycles each time.
- Breath in for 4 (expand the belly).
- Hold for 7.
- Exhale for 8.
If it’s hard to do this pattern for those counts without getting out of breath, know it’s the ratio that’s important. So you can start with in for 2, hold for 3.5, out for 4 and still get the same effects.
Easiest paced breathing
- breath in for 4
- breath out for 6.
All of these methods work. The key is to pick one that you like and be consistent with practicing it a couple of times day (or more).
If you’d like an app to help you with your breathing exercises, try this free one breathwrk.
As usual, my teacher was on to something. I began to practice my box breathing a couple of times a day. My stress levels went way down over time, even with the constant demand of young children and a business to run on top of my studies. And the weird bumps that had appeared along my temples for a few years disappeared, never to return.
Intentional breathing practices are always good, but now more than ever, when we’re uncertain, anxious and isolated, I highly encourage you to give them a try.