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The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Breathing

30th June 2023
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It’s so easy to take breathing for granted and overlook its importance to our mental health. After all, surely something as simple as breathing couldn’t make any real, tangible difference to wellbeing?


In fact, breathing can be very powerful. Because although it is an automatic process, you can also influence and practise it consciously. And once you develop skills and techniques in breathwork, you can use it to affect your mind, body and emotions. For instance, you can get better at bringing your body and mind back into a more balanced state, calming yourself when you feel agitated, and reinvigorating yourself when you feel shutdown or detached.


A good breathing practice can also re-connect you to the present moment, releasing you from ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. And when you are anchored to the present, you can deal with challenges better and even feel more empathy towards others. 

The Benefits of Conscious Breathing


In short, breathwork has various important benefits, such as:


  • Managing your stress levels.
  • Regulating your body’s threat response.
  • Anchoring you to the present moment.
  • Calming you when you’re agitated.
  • Re-invigorating you when you’re feeling shutdown.
  • Activating your compassion and empathy. 
  • Helping you to become more mindful of your thoughts, emotions and reactions.


And unlike other wellness techniques that might need privacy or preparation, breathing practices can be done just about anywhere. This means that you can draw upon them as quick tools when you’re facing difficult situations and emotions — and feel empowered about managing your reactions better.


You can think of breathwork as the bridge between the more rational part of your brain and your nervous system. That is why it is good to make conscious, focused breathing a daily practice, so that you can draw upon it in times of distress — in other words, when your body’s threat response system gets activated. 


Understanding Your Threat Response System 


When you start to develop a breathwork practice, this can help you to choose and steer your reactions to stressful events. In other words, you can respond more effectively to different arousal states in the body. This includes those times when your Fight-Flight-Freeze threat response becomes activated.


Your Fight-Flight response happens when your body is flooded with adrenaline, priming it to deal with a threat by taking physical action. Another name for this is the hyper-arousal state. Conversely, your Freeze response is when your body becomes immobilised or shut down to protect you from danger. This is known as the hypo-arousal state.


While we need our threat response system in times of genuine danger, it can also be triggered at awkward times. For instance, if you find criticism difficult to deal with then a colleague pointing out a mistake you made might activate your threat response. In these situations you might go into hyperarousal by becoming argumentative, or hypoarousal by shutting down and not being able to think or speak.


But there are actually two ways to stop this reaction in its tracks — via top-down and bottom-up regulation.


Understanding Top-Down and Bottom-Up Regulation


Our brains are made up of various parts that are in charge of various processes. These include the higher reasoning and impulse control section (frontal lobe), and survival section (amygdala).


Top-down regulation is when the impulse control part of your brain observes that you are becoming reactive and steers you back towards calm. However, this is easier said than done. Many people have never learned how to regulate themselves in this way and can become easily ‘hijacked’ by the amygdala instead. That said, techniques such as mindfulness meditation can help with this. That is because top-down regulation is about steering your thinking and awareness, a central focus of mindfulness.


Bottom-up regulation is where you calm your amygdala directly through the body and your senses (such as touch), movement and focused breathing. Essentially, bottom-up regulation is about shifting your emotions and physical responses by recalibrating the nervous system. 


But what is the best way to breathe? That actually depends on what kind of stress state you are in.


Practising Calming Breathing


Slowing down your breath can calm both your body and mind. So if you’ve moved into fight-flight mode — which can include a racing heart — you can use breathing to bring yourself out of this hyper-aroused state. 


One way is to breathe from your belly in a rhythmic way, exhaling slowly while fully emptying your lungs. The out-breath is particularly important as it activates your body’s soothing response, bringing you out of fight-flight. You can also try placing your hands on a part of your body where you feel your breath, such as your belly. This helps you to focus on your breathing, plus touch is comforting when you’re stressed.


You can also accompany this practice by relaxing the muscles in your eyes, as this encourages your heart rate to slow and your blood pressure to lower. Placing your hands gently over your eyes is one way to do this.


Practising Energising Breathing


Speeding up your breathing can re-energise your body and mind. So if you find yourself in a shut down state — which can include a slowed down heart rate — your aim should be to make your body more alert and active. You can do this by taking 2 or 3 quick breaths from the upper chest to energise and invigorate yourself. This will bring you out of the shutdown state and help you to respond to situations as needed. However, don’t continue if you start to feel lightheaded as the aim is to balance yourself, not hyperventilate and make yourself dizzy.


Although both of these breathing approaches are different, they are actually doing the same thing — bringing your nervous system back into balance. And just as your body becomes more flexible when you practise stretching exercises, likewise, your nervous system becomes more flexible when you practise breathing daily.


How to Develop Your Breathwork


Here are a few steps that you can take to become more mindful of your breathing: 


  1. Pay attention to those times during the day when you are breathing in a short or shallow way. This can actually make stress or panic worse, so it’s important to pause and deepen your breathing when this happens.


  1. Pay attention to the times during the day when you hold your breath — for instance, sometimes we do this to protect ourselves from feeling difficult emotions. So do you hold your breath when you’re feeling frustrated or fearful?


  1. Once a day, aim to practise breathing exercises for a few minutes. Focus on what feels good, soothing and natural to you. As time goes on, you can lengthen your practice. You can also try different positions for breathwork, such as standing, sitting and lying down. 

 

Remember that it’s important to find breathing exercises that work for you. There are plenty of techniques to choose from but if you find yourself becoming stressed about ‘getting it right’, then this defeats the purpose. So pay attention to what’s going on in your body first and foremost — what soothes or energises you?


Also, if you have a history of trauma then you might find it difficult to sit still and breathe deeply, as this could feel unsafe to you. If this is the case you can build up your daily breathing practise slowly, perhaps for just a minute or so at first. And if it all gets too much, you can pause and wrap your arms around yourself to self-soothe.


Finally, if you have perfectionist tendencies then it can actually help to keep your practice as simple as possible —  perhaps by just focusing on a deep and slow in-out breath, without worrying about technique, rhythm, or counting. This is because you don’t want your practice to end up as a cause of stress, where you are worried about getting it right. In the end, a good breathing practice is about bringing yourself back into balance, not following a set of rigid rules or trying to master a particular style.


Breathing can be very powerful, helping to keep ‘conversation’ flowing between your logical mind and your nervous system. By developing a breathwork practice that you can draw upon in times of stress, you will be able to steer your reactions better and bring yourself back into balance.



Check out everything our all-in-one mental wellbeing platform provides to businesses here. If you’re interested in finding out more, a demo of the new Lumo Health platform or a free introductory webinar for your teams please just get in touch with Rich@lumohealth.care or Mirsad@lumohealth.care.



The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Breathing
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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