Breathing is a bit of a no-brainer, literally. You inhale and exhale all day long without giving it a second thought. But here’s the weird thing about your breath: Unlike other automatic functions, like your heart beating, you can also choose to control it and breathe faster or slower than normal. And by doing so, you can have a pretty big impact on your mental health.
“Your breath connects what you’re thinking and how your body feels,” says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health. “And it goes in both directions.” In other words, not only does your breath speed up when you get stressed, but breathing quickly can actually bring on feelings of stress. It works the other way too: Slow your breathing down and make your breaths deeper and you will start to quickly feel more relaxed.
“When people purposefully try to calm down, they credit things like the candle they lit or the mantra they repeated, and those things help,” says Vranich. “But the real impact is because they made you slow your breathing, which is what really relaxed you.”
Breathe This Way
If you haven’t thought about your breath in a while, chances are it’s relatively shallow, which isn’t great. “I call it hover breathing, because you’re taking tiny sips of air in and letting tiny sips of air out,” says Vranich. “It’s one reason why yawning feels so good—you’re finally taking in lots of oxygen!” The other mistake: You’re expanding your chest when you breathe as opposed to your belly and sides. Change your breathing to be deep and expansive low in your torso and you’re already well on your way to feeling more relaxed. If you’re ready for something a little more specific, try these three techniques Vranich recommends to help you feel more peaceful in no time.
Walking Breath: The next time you’re walking down the street, try timing your inhales and exhales to your steps. Inhale for two steps and exhale for two steps. After a few rounds of that, switch to inhaling for two and exhaling for three. “Exhaling for longer than you inhale stimulates your vagus nerve, which activates your parasympathetic nervous system,” says Vranich. “That is what calms you down.”
4-4-6-2: This pattern gets gradually slower as you go, which makes it pretty powerful at relaxing you. Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for six seconds, hold for two. Keep repeating this pattern but as you go on, start counting slower and slower.
Mouth-to-Nose: Start with three mouth-only breaths (mimic yawning). Then do three breaths where you inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose. Last, do three breaths inhaling and exhaling through your nose only. “You’ll get a lot of oxygen when you do the yawns,” says Vranich. “And when you switch to your nose, you start getting nitric oxide, which is inherently relaxing.”
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