Are you sitting down at the moment, reading this article?
Unless you are on the run, trying to make it somewhere and multitasking by reading this article (watch out for the lamp post!), take a second to observe your breath as it is right now.
Are you breathing into your belly or chest? Is your breath deep, or shallow?
It is more likely that, if you are sitting down, your breath is quite shallow and your chest is where most of the air goes to as you breathe in, leaving your belly totally flat.
Although this is the way most of us have learnt to breathe throughout our lives, what if I told you that there is a more effective way to breathe, where more oxygen is able to enter your brain, making your focus sharper and you more resistant to stress?
By breathing shallow, into our chest we often run a risk of not providing our brain with enough oxygen, which can make our body release stress hormones, as it thinks that we are in a dangerous situation.
Stressful situations that we face each day, such as hitting the deadlines and completing all the tasks on our to-do lists, together with long hours of sitting down can also make our breathing more shallow and less efficient.
This all easily creates a downward spiral, as the two factors keep causing each other. In worst cases, shallow and rapid breathing can lead to anxiety, or depression.
However, there are great things that you can do escape this spiral and start regaining control of your breath.
An effective way is to use mindfulness techniques to calm down your body's autonomic nervous system (the one that controls your heartbeat, blood pressure, and other vital functions), that in turn decreases your feeling of stress by camling down your mind.
One of them is to just observe your breathing several times throughout the day.
It's as simple as that.
I would advise to set several reminders throughout the day, which is crucial for helping you tune in to your breathing despite what you're doing at the moment. Otherwise, it is most likely that, if you remember to do it, you might be preoccupied with other things at that moment and tell yourself that you will do it later, which you would later forget.
Your reminders should be set realistically, for example not when you are expected to attend an important meeting, or a job interview. They should be planned according to your daily schedule and set at times, when you are more likely able to take a break.
So, as soon as you get a reminder, just start observing your breath.
Observe whether your breath is shallow, or deep? Is your belly, or chest the one that rises with an in-breath and falls with an out-breath?
Observe how fast you are breathing and the length of your each breath. How long are the spaces between in- and out-breaths?
Now start sligtly altering your breath.
Firstly, if you are breathing in to your chest, change to diaphragm breathing (sometimes called belly breathing) instead. With each inhale, relax your belly and let it expand, allowing your diaphragm to come down.
With each exhale, allow your belly to get sucked in, as the diaphragm rises.
Once you've switched to a deeper, diaphragm breathing, you may start the easy breathing exercise - box breathing.
Box breathing (sometimes called square breathing) is very straightforward.
Imagine seeing a square box in front of you (hence the name). If math was your strong subject at school, you probably remember that all sides of a square are equal. So, imagine that the box has 4x4 dimensions, meaning that it has four measurement units on each side, like the box in the picture below.
Start by breathing all the air out.
Then begin your breathing exercise at the bottom left corner, as you inhale the air for the count of 4. Move upwards, on the left side of the box.
Once your lungs are filled with air, hold your breath for 4 counts. Imagine as though you are moving towards the right side on the top of the box, while you count, and eventually reach the upper right corner.
Now breathe all the air our for the count of 4. As you do this, imagine moving downwards on the right side of the box all the way to the bottom right corner.
When all the air has left your lungs, hold them empty for the count of 4, mentally moving your attention along the bottom of the box, all the way to the bottom left corner.
Now start all over again by breathing in for 4 counts along the left side of the box and repeat the same pattern as above.
Once you become confident with this exercise, having practiced it several times, you may want to increase the count to five units, then six, and so on.
Some indications for box breathing...
Although box breathing is relatively safe, I have found some indications on the NC State University's website for those of you who have high, or low blood pressure, lung, heart, or eye problems, as well as if you are pregnant. You can check out their indications here: https://yoga.dasa.ncsu.edu/breathing-techniques/square-breathing/
Why is box breathing good for you?
Studies have shown that mindfulness breathing exercises calm down our nervous system and even improve our cognitive abilities (1, 2).
Some studies have also shown that deep breathing exercises can also reduce overall stress levels in participants and improve mood (3).
Deep breathing exercises are shown to improve our cognitive abilities by making us more resistant to stress in situations, where we are required to perform, such as taking a test (4).
Slow, deep breathing mindfulness exercises were also shown to reduce anxiety (5) and improve sleep quality for people who have depression (6).
However, I would not recommend relying purely on breathing exercises for mental health conditions like these as such techniques can only be used as an extra practice, aside from the real treatment that the healthcare professional recommends. Therefore, I would highly advise you to primarily consult with a healthcare professional if you suspect having depression, or anxiety.
Box breathing, if done long enough, can help you enter a meditative state and you can read about the science-backed benefits of meditation in my earlier article.
So, by inhaling, holding in the air, exhaling and holding the air out for equal counts, several times a day, you can calm down your autonomic nervous system, which makes you less stressed, sharpens your brain, and even lower the risk of having depression or anxiety.
Please me know, whether you've tried this exercise and how it made you feel :)
Stay tuned for more science-backed evidence and tips on mindfulness that I will post in this blog, by subscribing to my mailing list below.
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Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Certified Mindfulness Life Coach
1. Naik, G. S., Gaur, G. S., & Pal, G. K. (2018). Effect of modified slow breathing exercise on perceived stress and basal cardiovascular parameters. International Journal of Yoga, 11(1), 53-58. doi:10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_41_16
2. Bing‐Canar, H., Pizzuto, J., & Compton, R. J. (2016). Mindfulness‐of‐breathing exercise modulates EEG alpha activity during cognitive performance. Psychophysiology, 53(9), 1366-1376. doi:10.1111/psyp.12678
3. Perciavalle, V., Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Fecarotta, P., . . . Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451-458. doi:10.1007/s10072-016-2790-8
4. Cho H, Ryu S, Noh J, Lee J. The Effectiveness of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices on Test Anxiety of Students. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(10):e0164822. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164822
5. Sellakumar, G. K. (2015). effect of slow-deep breathing exercise to reduce anxiety among adolescent school students in a selected higher secondary school in coimbatore, india.Journal of Psychological and Educational Research, 23(1), 54.
6. Chien, H., Chung, Y., Yeh, M., & Lee, J. (2015). Breathing exercise combined with cognitive behavioural intervention improves sleep quality and heart rate variability in major depression.Journal of Clinical Nursing, 24(21-22), 3206-3214. doi:10.1111/jocn.12972