3 Ways To Instantly Calm Yourself Using Your Breath
Whether or not life begins at first breath is a topic that’s still under heavy debate – many believe that it may be earlier – but one thing we can usually agree on is that with our final breath, at least, comes death. What death may actually mean to each person can differ, with various faiths and cultures each following their own belief system of what happens to our consciousness after we die, whether or not there is an afterlife, and what that may involve – but the bottom line still remains that as long as we are still on this earth, living our human existence, we are breathing.
Breath is an intrinsic part of life, that is inextricably linked with the emotions we feel during the journey. When we’re shocked, we draw in a sharp breath of surprise. When we’re angry, a hot snort of breath will often escape from the nose. When we panic, our breath tends to come in sharp, short bursts, and when we are nervously awaiting something, we do so with bated breath. There is no denying that our emotions can affect the way we breathe. But did you know that our breath, too, can influence the way we feel?
It can, and so much so that there’s even a whole school of practices devoted to it. Breathwork is a range of exercises or techniques that use breathing as a means of influencing a person’s mental, emotional, or physical state, through the use of conscious control and intentional rhythms, often for a therapeutic, healing effect. Some techniques, such as holotropic breathwork, have even been found to help people reach altered states of consciousness, providing similar results to those achieved using psychedelics or plant medicine, but without the use of any drugs or substances. However, it is incredibly important that such sessions take place with a certified practitioner, since the effects can be extremely powerful, and may even be dangerous if not handled responsibly. Holotropic breathing instructors, for instance, must complete 600 hours with Grof Transpersonal Training to be officially certified to do so.
The term ‘breathwork’ is more often than not associated with the type of rapid-pace breathing that leads to such states. But not all exercises to do with our breath are intended to be so intense. Some of them are meant to be simple, with the goal of helping you gently calm down. As such, not all types of breath-related exercises must be done with the supervision of a certified instructor – there are some simple options we can do on our own, with an immediate effect on our sense of well-being.
We should always take certain precautions for safety when it comes to any breath-related exercise: It should not be done in conjunction with the use of substances (or at least any unsafe ones – certifiably organic essential oils, used safely and responsibly, are sometimes incorporated with breathwork practices, for instance), so if you are in a place where the air has been heavily perfumed or is somehow malignant (e.g. filled with cigarette smoke or with petrol fumes), it’s wiser to look for a safer location. Avoid doing it when you are operating any dangerous or heavy machinery, such as while you are actively driving. And if you feel any dizziness, light-headedness, or painful tingling in your hands, arms, feet, or legs, then stop.
However, if you find yourself having a particularly stressful day, seeking more ease when you’re suffering from a bout of anxiety, or perhaps even trying to calm the racing thoughts in your brain as you quiet your “monkey mind” to meditate or go to sleep, these breathing techniques can be used as a therapeutic way to bring about some tranquility. Think of the old advice given to people suffering from a panic attack, of breathing into a paper bag – or even the reason why many people tend to smoke when they are stressed (however unhealthy or unhelpful that may be): it’s a prompt to consciously control the depth and rhythm of your breath, and hopefully, find some calm.
Have you ever found yourself feeling anxious or stressed, only to find out that you were literally holding your breath? Maybe it was when you were nervously waiting for the results of a very important test, or watching a film with a tense scene of a character stuck underwater, trying to find their way out. Perhaps you even held your breath while reading that. (If so then pause, and take a deep breath!) In situations like this, if your breath is not bated, then it may be shallow: where it comes in shorter, tighter bursts that feel like they’re only coming from the front part of your chest, rather than your whole lungs.
When your emotions are affecting your breath, you can also use your breath to influence your emotions, and calm them down – and one great way to do that is diaphragmatic breathing. Also known as belly breathing, or deep belly breathing, this method of breathing has been found to help lower one’s heart rate and blood pressure, and even one’s levels of cortisol, which is also known as the stress hormone. It can also increase the amount of oxygen available to your body. As its name suggests, it involves the use of the diaphragm – the muscle below your lungs, which controls your respiration – along with the abdominal muscles, and the stomach.
This exercise may be done standing, sitting, or lying down, in a comfortable position. You may keep your eyes open or closed. To begin with, place one of your hands on the upper part of your chest. The other hand should be placed just below your ribcage, above your navel (over where your diaphragm would be). Take a slow, deep inhale through your nose, pulling your breath into your stomach as you go, expanding your belly in the process. At this point, your chest will remain relatively still, while you should feel your belly push outwards. As you draw into the end of this breath, to release it, squeeze your abdominal muscles then pull your belly back inwards as you exhale. You may exhale through your nose, or through pursed lips, all the while your hand on your chest still unstirring. This action can then be repeated, slowly and intentionally, for the next few minutes. It can be done for anything from one to two minutes, to five or ten. If you are new to diaphragmatic breathing, you can start small, then build your way up.
Also known as box breathing, this method of breathing helps you – your body and your mind – to slow down. It can also help to improve your focus, and has been employed by yogis and US Navy SEALs alike.
This exercise may also be done standing, sitting, or lying down, in a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed. Preferably, try to do this in a quiet and stress-free environment, or one that allows for peace. If there is chaos around you, however – perhaps that’s even why you’re in need of a breathing technique to calm yourself down! – you may try to employ the principles of stoicism by remembering that we cannot always control what is happening around us, but we can control what is happening within us, by channeling our focus and energy inwards instead. Whichever position you choose, try to lie or sit in a way that allows for your spine to be straight, so you are not curved over your abdomen, and are making space for your body to be able to take deeper breaths.
Box breathing works by attaching your breath to counts, with the same number of counts used to breathe in and breathe out – with two breath holds in between, for the same count. Confused? Try to visualize a box: you’re going to breathe in for X amount of counts, hold your breath for X amount of counts, breathe out for X amount of counts, and hold for X amount of counts. The number of counts can vary slightly depending on your needs, experience, and lung capacity, but four is a commonly-used standard, and is typically a good place to begin.
Begin by taking a deep, slow exhale, so that you may empty your lungs. Breathing in slowly and deeply again, inhale as you count from 1, 2, 3, and 4. Hold your breath easily and gently, without too much strain or effort – once again, for 1, 2, 3, and 4 counts. Then exhale, slowly and deeply, for four counts. Hold your breath for four more counts, as you did after your inhale. You may repeat this a few times.
The most simple of these three methods, long-exhale breathing is exactly what it sounds like: you’re just going to breathe out for a little bit longer than you breathe in. This technique can help to calm your body’s nervous system, stimulating your vagus nerve and sending messages to your brain’s limbic system that it should relax a little. Not only is it great for helping to reduce anxiety, but it’s also useful for soothing your system when you’re struggling with insomnia or sleeplessness, or if you’ve been having difficulty aligning your body and mind for rest. It can even be used after a grueling workout, to help your heart rate calm down to a more normal level while you are enjoying a post-exercise stretch!
Once again, you may perform this exercise standing, sitting, or lying down comfortably. It can also be done with your eyes open or shut, although for this one, most people prefer doing it with their eyes gently closed. Consciously try and let your body relax, bit by bit: first, your limbs, then your belly, your hips, your torso and chest, your arms, your neck, and even your face: your cheeks, your eyelids, your jaw, and your forehead. There is no breath-hold in this method: all you will do is breathe in slowly and deeply, then breathe out for a little bit longer. You can adjust the counts as per your needs, experience, or situation, but if you are looking for further guidance, a good place to start is to breathe in for five to six seconds, and breathe out six to seven, or seven to eight seconds.
These techniques can all be used almost anywhere and anytime, and they require no special tools or fancy accoutrements: all you need is yourself, a willing mindset, and your natural, human ability to breathe. So the next time you feel yourself filling up with anxiety, dread, panic, fear, or anything else that could do with a dose of calm, just remember one of these methods, give yourself a minute, and take a deep breath.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Breathing Rhythms And Emotions; Breathwork: An Additional Treatment Option For Depression And Anxiety?; Holotropic Breathwork: An Experiential Approach To Psychotherapy; Identifying Alternative Mental Health Interventions: A Systematic Review Of Randomized Controlled Trials Of Chanting And Breathwork; How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review On Psycho-Physiological Correlates Of Slow Breathing; Breathing: A Sign of Life and a Unique Area for Reflection and Action.
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