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Just breathe: How breathing affects the mind and body

How many of us have been told during a stressful situation to ‘just breathe’? Turns out focusing on and altering our breath is pretty useful in influencing our mental and physical state!

Breathing is an essential function. One which often goes unnoticed in our everyday lives. Paying attention to the breath and its effects is not a new concept. Relaxation practises such as yoga, which have been around for thousands of years, incorporate the act of noticing and regulating breath. This article can help you learn about breathing and how it might help you calm your body and mental state.

What happens when you pay attention to your breath

You might become aware of the fact that the quality and pace of your breathing changes. For example, you might hold your breath before a big event, or find yourself hyperventilating in panic or crisis, or maybe you might notice the slow and steady breath of someone sleeping or resting?

The very act of paying attention to your breathing has been shown to reduce the activity in the amygdala – the part of your brain related to regulating emotions. The good news is just noticing your breath can ease emotional distress!

How breath directly shifts the body’s response to stress

Breathing in more deeply and slowly tends to activate a body system known as the parasympathetic nervous system otherwise knows as the system that is responsible for inducing a relaxation state in the body which may decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. In contrast, more shallow and fast breathing tends to activate the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for activating our body’s stress response and can increase blood pressure and heart rate.

Importantly, when you are paying attention to your breath, you are less likely to be paying attention to distressing thoughts that may be negatively affecting how you feel. Focusing less on those thoughts can therefore be a reason for why breath focus can be so helpful.

Research shows that breathing can reduce symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and stress. Whilst breathing isn’t a magic pill by any means, it can lead to some relief of distress and improvement in how you feel!

So how do I do it?

There are lots of different controlled breathing techniques that have been found to be useful. Some important features include:

  • Paying attention to the breath.
  • Counting can be helpful to make sure that breath is slow and regulated (e.g. 4 seconds in, hold for 2 seconds and 6 seconds out).
  • Making sure the breath goes down to the abdomen or stomach area instead of ‘chest breathing’.
  • Try to practice breathing techniques on a regular basis when you are feeling relaxed as well as when you notice signs of stress.
  • The Centre for Clinical Interventions has a great guide here on how to do breathing retraining.

Use with caution

Some people find that focusing attention on breathing can actually increase symptoms of panic and hyperventilation. If this is you, breathing techniques may not be the best fit for you. Consider trying other physical relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation.

Written by Dr Esha Jamnadass, Clinical Psychology Registrar

More information

If you would like to learn more about calming your body and mind or to book an appointment with Dr Esha Jamnadass or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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