5 Simple Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress & Improve Your Sleep

This article was originally published by our friends Dr. Axe

What if there was a way to decrease stress, ease anxiety, improve sleep and boost your mood — and you could do it anywhere, at any time? How about also helping to relieve COPD and blood pressure problems? Interested?

You’re in luck, because this already exists. It’s time to introduce breathing exercises into your daily routine.


What Are Breathing Exercises & What Are They For?

Breathing exercises and techniques sound a little funny at first: After all, don’t we all know how to breathe? Using specific breathing techniques and breath control, however, means that you’re being mindful about the way you breathe in and out. By purposefully changing the way we breathe, we can change the way we feel and how our bodies react to what’s going on around us.

Under normal circumstances, we inhale to absorb oxygen and exhale to rid our body of carbon dioxide through the lungs, with the help of our diaphragm muscle. But when we’re stressed, anxious or upset, for example, the way we breathe changes. Instead of deep, lung-filling breaths, we start “overbreathing” and taking short, shallow breaths. Instead of our diaphragm doing the heavy lifting, we use our shoulders to inhale and exhale, which can make anxious feelings even worse.

By using breathing exercises, we send a signal to our nervous system, the part of our body managing things like our heart rate and our stress response, that things are OK. In turn, the physical effects of anxiety — racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, sweaty palms — are reduced, and our minds calm down. Best of all, unlike yoga or meditation (which I still absolutely recommend!), you can do breathing exercises when you’re commuting to work, before a stressful meeting or even in the midst of an argument when you want to calm down. 

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4 Benefits of Breathing Exercises

Sure, changing the way you breathe can transform the type of breaths you take and maybe help you feel better right then and there. But does it really change your body? Although researchers aren’t quite sure of the how, they all agree that it definitely does. Check out these breathing exercises benefits.

1. Improve COPD

For people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, that feeling of not being able to take a deep breath is one of the earliest signs of the disease, though it’s often confused with aging. (1) As time goes on and the lungs aren’t able to expel air, the diaphragm isn’t able to do its job and help bring in oxygen. So the body turns to other muscles, like the ones in chest, back and even neck, to keep you breathing.

But since these muscles aren’t cut out for breathing the way the diaphragm is, people with COPD will find themselves not getting enough oxygen and feeling tired and worn out — not to mention the feeling of always needing a bit more air.

Because it’s become harder to breathe, individuals with COPD often find themselves avoiding exercise and other activities that will cause even more shortness of breath. Except that plan backfires, as the body’s muscles weaken, making it even more difficult to breathe — and the cycle continues.

According to the COPD Foundation, more than 30 million Americans suffer from the condition each year. Luckily, several studies have found that breathing techniques and exercises are an effective way of helping to ease the burden of COPD, particularly when more intensive pulmonary care is unavailable. (2, 3)

One study even found that not only did breathing exercises help improve dyspnea, or labored breathing, but quality of life and the lung’s abilities to take in more oxygen increased as well. (4) This is great news, because COPD is often treated with medication or pricey rehab programs. As the study’s authors mention, “deep breathing exercises is an effective and economical method for improving the physical capacity and general wellbeing of patients with COPD.”

2. Lower Blood Pressure

For folks with high blood pressure, practicing breathing techniques and breathing exercises for anxiety can help naturally lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, breathing exercises are included in a 2013 recommendation made by the American Heart Association as an alternative beyond medicine and diet to controlling blood pressure. (5)

A major study out of Japan also showed evidence that deep breathing exercises are beneficial for reducing blood pressure. (6) In a study of 21,563 subjects, researchers found that blood pressure was significantly lower after doing six rounds of deep breathing exercises for 30 seconds each time.

3. Reduce Anxiety

Whether you suffer from an anxiety disorder or are just confronting a nerve-wracking, anxious experience, breathing exercises for anxiety can be really helpful.

One study conducted among musicians discovered that when they practiced breathing techniques for 30 minutes before performing, it had a positive impact on their heart rates and also left them feeling less anxious and tense than beforehand. (7) This is impressive, and means that just one session of slower breathing can have positive effects on anxiety.

Breathing exercises also help ease anxiety in people who already have COPD. One study conducted on 46 men who were hospitalized because of the condition found that practiced breathing techniques improved not only participants’ anxiety, but also their shortness of breath and mobility. (8)

4. Improve Sleep and Lower Stress

If you’re lying in bed with thoughts racing and have run out of sheep to count, breathing exercises for sleep can help send you to dreamland. Slow, deep breathing actually helps the body override the sympathetic system, which controls our fight-or-flight response, and lets the parasympathetic system ­— which controls our ability to relax — take the wheel instead. (9) When you practice deep breathing while in bed, you’re giving the body permission to quit being on high alert and, instead, to relax.

Focusing on your breathing also forces your mind to concentrate on the task at hand, and not on whatever you’re lying in bed thinking about, which can often be enough to lull you to sleep.

Breathing exercises when you’re stressed act in the same way. Activating the parasympathetic system directs your body away from the fight-or-flight response that flares up when we’re stressed about something, and reminds it to chill out instead. The result is a slower heart rate, deeper breathing and a greater sense of calm.


5 Different Types of Breathing Exercises to Relax

Not all breathing exercises are the same, but I especially love the ones that help the body relax and quiet a busy mind. The cool thing is that aside from helping you unwind and destress, breathing exercises also strengthen the lungs. You might find that after you’ve been doing the techniques for some time, that your “normal” breathing is more effective, too.

Remember, that just like any type of exercise, practice makes perfect with breathing techniques. You might not nail them on the first try, but as you keep incorporating them into your wellness routine, you’ll eventually find that you can do them without much effort.

1. Pursed lip breathing

This one is super simple and easy to do, but extremely effective. The general idea is to breathe out for double the amount of breaths you inhale. Pursed lip breathing helps release air that’s trapped in the lungs, and decreases the amount of breaths you take, while extending exhalation.

With relaxed shoulders, take a normal breath for about 2 counts. Then pucker your lips up (think of your mouth when you’re about to whistle — that’s what your lips should look like!) and exhale for 4 counts. Do this for a few rounds.

2. Diaphragmatic breathing

Also known as belly or abdominal breathing, this is the granddaddy of breathing exercises, as you’re training the body to let your diaphragm do all the work. Your goal here is to breathe through your nose and focus on how your belly fills up with air.

You can do this one either sitting up or lying down; I find it’s nice to do while in bed to help wind down. With your shoulders back, keep one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. As you breathe in deeply for about 2 seconds, your belly should stick out a bit. Feel the air expanding your stomach and then breathe out slowly through the lips.

3. Yoga breathing

Yogis know that controlled breathing is a huge part of a yoga practice. One of my favorites is alternate nostril breathing. This is a great one when you want to keep your mind from jumping around, like when you’re stressed at work or trying to fall asleep, because you’ll need to focus to remember what nostril you’re working on.

To practice this one, start on the right side. Place your right thumb over your right nostril as you breathe in through the left nostril. Then take your right ring finger and place it over your left nostril as you exhale from the right one.

Leaving your ring finger where it is over the left nostril, inhale from the left, then switch to the right side, putting your thumb over the right nostril and exhaling through the left. It sounds a little funky, but you’ll get the hang of it. You can easily see why people do it to help focus on the present ­— it’s hard to think of anything else when you’re wondering which nostril is next!

Lion’s breath is another common one that’s a little cheeky and allows you to exhale out bad energy and invite in a more relaxing state. Here, you take a deep breath through the nose. When it’s time to breathe out, tilt your head back, close your eyes, stick out your tongue and let the air out through your mouth, like a lion would! You can take this one to the next level by raising your arms on the inhale and then doing cactus arms (holding your arms up at 90 degrees) while you exhale.

4. 4-7-8

This deceptively simple breathing technique is lauded as one of the best ones to help you fall asleep. In theory, it’s easy. You exhale through your mouth and then close it and inhale through your nose for 4 counts. You hold the breath in for 7 counts, then release it in 8 counts, and repeat at least three times.

Because you have 8 counts to get the breath out in, you’re forced to slow down your breathing which, in turn, slows down the heart rate and helps you relax.

5. Breath counting

This is another relaxation technique that will keep your mind from wandering too far. Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths, then settle into a pattern of “normal” breathing. When you exhale, count “one.” The next time, count “two.” Do this until you have exhaled (and counted to) five, then start the pattern over. Don’t count past five, and if you find you’ve lost count, start again at one. You’ll be surprised at how much concentration it will take to keep yourself on count.


Precautions

Breathing techniques are generally a safe, inexpensive way to strengthen your lungs, relax and decrease stress and anxiety. However, if you do have COPD or another type of lung disease, you should speak with your doctor about incorporating breathing exercises into your lifestyle — just don’t hold your breath forever!


Final Thoughts

  • Breathing exercises help us more effectively inhale and exhale, using our diaphragm. By changing the way we breathe, we can better control our emotions.
  • What makes breathing exercises extra useful is that you can do them anywhere, at any time.
  • Using breathing techniques can ease the symptoms of stress, anxiety, sleep problems, blood pressure and COPD.
  • There are a number of breathing exercises you can do to help you relax. Pursed lip is the easiest — once you master that one, move on to the more advanced versions to help calm your mind, reduce anxiety and live more happily.


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Dr. Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, is a doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist with a passion to help people get well using food as medicine and operates one of the world's largest natural health websites: www.DrAxe.com. He is the author of the groundbreaking health book Eat Dirt, which uncovers the hidden causes and cures of leaky gut syndrome. Dr. Axe is an expert in digestive health, functional medicine, natural remedies and dietary strategies for healing. He has been featured on many television shows, including the Dr. Oz Show, CBS and NBC, and has his own Eat Dirt program running on select PBS TV stations. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world, in Nashville, TN, and has been a physician for many professional athletes. DrAxe.com is one of the most visited websites worldwide for healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, essential oils, and natural supplements.