Take a deep breath and de-stress, live longer and healthier, and be happy. It’s as easy as . . . well, as breathing!
Most of us can’t go more than about 30–60 seconds without taking a breath. Breathing and the oxygen it provides us is constantly essential to sustaining our life. But, because our highly smart, efficient bodies are capable of controlling our breathing without us having to be mindful of it, most of us don’t give much thought or attention to our breathing patterns. This is a shame, as breathing properly is a practice that can do a great deal for our overall health and functioning. Here, we’ll take a look at the importance of practicing deep breathing and the benefits it provides.
Without even realizing it, many, if not most, people breathe quite shallowly. Adults in particular tend to breathe primarily from their chest, often times causing the shoulders to elevate. This form of breathing is shallow and does not fully or properly oxygenate the body. A simple test to see if you are breathing shallowly from the chest is to place one hand on your chest, the other on your stomach. When you take a breath, if your chest rises first or more so than your stomach, it’s indicative of shallow breathing patterns
Instead, the hand that’s on the stomach should rise first and more so than the chest. This is a sign of deep, or diaphragmic, breathing. When you breathe deeply from the diaphragm, the belly rises and fills the lungs and the whole body with oxygen. At first, retraining yourself to breathe fully from your diaphragm may seem unnatural and even possibly uncomfortable. But after a little bit of awareness and practice, it will become autonomic, and without even knowing it, you’ll be fully oxygenating your body with each breath.
But why is this deep, diaphragmic breathing important? When we breathe shallowly, the diaphragm doesn’t move through its full range of motion, which results in the lower part of the lungs not filling to capacity with oxygen. Not only can this cause-effect the mental state by causing one to be more stressed, distracted, or anxious, it also affects the physical state of wellness.
Oxygen is critical to every cell in the body. It’s required for cellular respiration, which helps the cell make energy. Without it, we’d quickly die. Though with shallow breathing we’re getting enough oxygen to keep us alive, we’re not getting the full amount required for optimal functioning, and the result is a less efficient cellular metabolism.
Aside from getting a proper dose of (hopefully) clean air, when we breathe deeply we’re also exhaling deeply, which releases carbon dioxide. This gas exchange that’s happening when we breathe keeps our cells functioning, our heart beating, and our blood pumping. When we focus on controlling breathing, it helps to calm the mind and release stress, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and expel toxins. Some of the primary benefits of deep breathing can include:
- Improved oxygen delivery throughout the entire body, particularly the lower body
- Lowered heart rate
- Lowered blood pressure
- Mind calmness, focus, and clarity
- Stress reduction
- Relaxed muscles and release of tension
- Release of endorphins
- Improved detoxification
- Pain relief
- Strengthened lungs
- Boosted stamina
- Boosted digestion
- Reduced stress hormones
While deep breathing should be something we do all day every day, it is a good idea to set aside some “mindful breathing” time to really focus on deep breathing and fully oxygenating the body. There are a number of ways to do this:
- Deep breathing practices and exercises
- Guided imagery
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- A relaxing bathtub
During times of higher stress, it becomes even more important to be aware of your breathing patterns, as stress tends to lead to more shallow breathing. Aim to focus at least 10 minutes each day on taking deep, full, diaphragmic breaths and try to be more mindful of deep breathing throughout your day…and note the difference in how you feel and the alertness you experience!