What if you already had everything you needed to be calm? Could your breathing be the key to a calmer you? I became much more interested in breathing techniques after I discovered Wim Hof. After practising some of his breathing techniques, I delved deeper into the subject because I felt first-hand the sensational power of deep breathing.
Why is it we often take a deep breath before letting out a long sigh when feeling stressed? If you’ve ever done this, you’ll know you can achieve a brief sensation of calmness. It’s like a reflex we all have, something built-in, not something that has been taught. There’s also a couple of seconds of calm you feel after the sharp inhale when yawning. The breath, it seems, is more important to us as human beings than we care to explore or notice.
Deep breathing exercises have been around for thousands of years in the ancient Eastern world, however, they have only really been popularised in the West in the past few decades. Many people still believe that things like meditation and breathing techniques have no real-world value and are only reserved for yogis and monks. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth, even though I’ll admit that at one point in my life, I believed this too.
We live in a culture that relies on pharmaceutical medicine yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned from researching and practising breathing exercises it’s that we’ve lost touch with a natural ability we all have to improve our moods, health and most importantly our capability to calm our minds and bodies.
Apparently, half of us don’t breathe properly!
Because breathing is an autonomic process, most of us pay little attention to it unless we’re submerged in water or feeling highly anxious. However, breathing properly is something we should all be conscious of because it isn’t just about staying alive.
We breathe about 20,000 times a day and it helps our nervous systems, essentially influencing our muscular, digestion and immune systems. Breathing draws in oxygen to oxygenate our red blood cells. Exhaling gets rid of toxins, it’s also how we lose weight as most weight is expelled through our breath, not our sweat.
Around half of us are ‘chest breathers’ where we only fill half of our lungs during inhalation whereas the other 50% of us are ‘belly breathers’ who inhale fully, filling their lung capacity completely with each breath. Humans are designed to be belly breathers but it’s not uncommon to find yourself breathing in a shallow fashion throughout the day which can leave you feeling more stressed, anxious and tired without you realising it.
Breathing exercises are accessible
The best thing about breathing techniques to calm down is that they are accessible to anyone. You don’t need to buy anything or be formally trained. All you need is several minutes and the willingness to give them a go.
There are many different breathing techniques you can try from the comfort of your own home and in my experience, they will all leave you with a feeling of calm. Once you get started, you may just become addicted!
Why breathing techniques calm you down
Your autonomic nervous system regulates all of your involuntary physiologic processes including heartbeat, blood pressure, heart rhythm, breathing, digestion and sexual arousal. These are all vital, primal functions that you thankfully don’t have to remember to do voluntarily which let’s be honest, would be a nightmare! However, when you become stressed or anxious, your nervous system works overtime releasing adrenaline and activating your flight or fight response, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up and you may even find you take shorter, more shallow breaths.
Obviously, your nervous system is doing an important job, however, it’s not very helpful when you don’t need an injection of adrenaline to run away from a predator.
Thankfully, there is a simple way to intervene and calm yourself down. Deep breathing techniques have been shown to influence your autonomic nervous system. More research is needed as with most things but those who have practised deep breathing techniques for calming down (including the thousands who have come and gone over the centuries) will and would tell you they experience the same thing – a sense of calm and relaxation throughout the body and mind.
In my experience, it can take time and practice to see and feel the benefits of deep breathing although you can for sure feel them straight away. I believe that if you’re someone that experiences the effects of overwhelming adrenaline when you’re anxious or stressed, deep breathing techniques could be a game changer for you.
Known benefits of deep breathing
Here are just some of the known and well-documented benefits of deep breathing;
Helps ease depression
Helps ease anxiety
My own experience with breathing techniques
Whilst it’s always important to look at the studies, of which there are many, I also think it’s helpful to hear the personal experience of others. I am just a normal guy that loves to learn about ways to relax my mind so deep breathing techniques were something that really caught my attention due to their accessibility (and thousands of years of anecdotal backing). I’m curious about what I can do myself, without the help of external forces.
I’ve tried a number of deep breathing exercises on a pretty consistent basis and the one that I enjoy the most is the Wim Hof breathing technique. When I perform this breathing technique, I find my mind becomes still and I am completely present. I can also feel the physical effects too. My heartbeat slows right down to a pace I’ve never felt before which unquestionably is a result of the processes happening in my mind and body at the same time. The physical and mental effects go hand in hand and I am left feeling ‘reset’ when I’m done. My mind is still as are my muscles.
For this reason, we’ll start with the Wim Hof deep breathing technique. Just a reminder, it’s a good idea to do these on an empty stomach so you can breathe fully and easily.
Quick note: Breathing techniques have no serious side effects but you should always speak to your doctor if you have any kind of health condition or concern first, especially if related to breathing.
1. Wim Hof’s breathing technique
As mentioned, the Wim Hof breathing technique is an incredibly calming breathing exercise. It’s pretty easy to do and you’ll more than likely notice the benefits after ten minutes. The Wim Hof Method, as he calls it, is about breathing, cold exposure and mindset. However, we’ll focus on the breathing technique here.
The Wim Hof method is known for calming the nervous system anecdotally although more research to prove this in a clinical setting is needed.
How to do it;
Inhale deeply into your stomach
Without pause, exhale fully
Repeat for 30 rounds
On the final exhale, breathe out completely and stop breathing
Hold your breath for 30 seconds
When you reach 30 seconds, breath in and hold your breath for 15 seconds before exhaling and going back to a normal breathing rhythm
Do this for three rounds however on the second round, pause your breathing for one minute and on the third, pause your breathing for 90 seconds. Of course, if you can’t hold your breath for that long, stick to a shorter time.
2. 4-7-8 breathing technique
Probably one of the most popular and well-known breathing techniques is the 4-7-8 breathing exercise. It’s a simple breathing technique for calming down and it’s easy for anyone to try.
Here’s how to do it;
Breathe in deeply through your nose for 4 seconds
Hold your breath for 7 seconds
Exhale fully for 8 seconds
This is one round. Complete the technique for at least four rounds to induce a sense of calm and relaxation. Like many of the deep breathing techniques on this list, you may feel lightheaded or experience tingly sensations.
3. Resonant breathing
Resonant breathing is essentially slowing your breathing right down. Typically, most people will breathe 12-16 times a minute, however, with resonant breathing, you slow your breaths down to 5-6 a minute.
Amazing research has been done on resonant breathing that has shown that deep, slow breathing has a powerful effect on the cardiovascular system and shows positive improvements for those that have hypertension over the long term. The research found that heart rhythm is capable of synchronizing with your breathing. Therefore, if you breathe intentionally slower, you could improve heart health, reduce anxiety and also lower your blood pressure. When my wife had high blood pressure during pregnancy, this breathing technique helped tremendously.
Resonant breathing is easy to do. Here’s how to do it;
Sit comfortably and keep your back straight so your lungs can expand fully
Inhale into your stomach and up into your chest for 5 seconds
Exhale fully for 5 seconds
Of course, this breathing technique requires a calm place to sit and practise. Using meditation music may help.
4. Box breathing
Box breathing is a calming breathing technique famously used by Navy Seals so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for the rest of us! It’s a simple exercise that is not only calming but also improves concentration.
Here’s how to do it;
Inhale through your nose to the count of 4 seconds
Hold your breath for 4 seconds
Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds
Hold your breath for 4 seconds
This is one round. Do this for a few minutes for a sense of deep calm.
5. Alternate nostril breathing
Alternate nostril breathing is exactly what it sounds like. During this breathing technique, you use your fingers to close one nostril whilst exhaling through the other.
Here’s how to do it;
Use your finger or thumb to close your right nostril
Inhale through your left nostril
Use your finger to close your left nostril
Exhale through your right nostril
Inhale through your right nostril.
Close off your right nostril with your thumb.
Open and exhale through your left nostril.
Inhale through your left nostril.
Continue to do this for as long as feels comfortable. Alternate nostril breathing has been shown to lower stress when performed for at least 30 minutes a day. However, you may experience other benefits at the same time. For example, when I do it, it seems to open up my sinuses.
6. Belly breathing
Belly breathing is a key breathing technique in yoga and it’s actually the way we should all be aspiring to breathe, in my opinion. It’s a simple exercise to try and it can make you feel an incredible sense of calmness as more oxygen gets into your system. Because many of us breathe only into our chests, we leave a lot of our lung capacity potential on the table.
Here’s how to do this calming breathing technique;
Lay on your back and place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your chest/ribcage.
Take a slow deep breath to the count of 5 seconds through your nose and notice your belly rise higher than your chest. Breathing into your belly engages your diaphragm.
Exhale to the count of 6 seconds and you should notice your belly sinking deeply as you expel all the air outwards. Try and tighten your stomach muscles as your stomach sinks and contracts.
The hand on your chest should remain still throughout the entire breathing exercise.
Try and do this for several minutes a day but not straight after a meal as you won’t be able to perform the full range of motion required in your belly.
7. Pursed lips breathing
Another great breathing technique to calm down is pursed lips breathing. This is a particularly good deep breathing technique for bringing your breathing rhythm back to a normal state, especially if you’re in a bit of a panic. The idea is to exhale twice as long as you breathe in. It’s supposed to be good for those who have lung conditions because it engages all of the lung mechanics without you having to work too hard to get oxygen in.
Here’s how to do it;
Sit or lay somewhere comfortable
Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds so your belly expands
Purse your lips together and exhale to the count of 4 seconds
Repeat several times until you feel calm
Once you’ve spent enough time practising this technique you can increase the inhale time to 4 seconds and exhale time to 8 seconds, for example.
Breathing techniques to calm down
Breathing techniques for calming down is an area that is well-researched. Like anything, different people will experience different levels of success but I think they are worth a shot because they are accessible to everyone. Do your own research into each breathing technique and see which one suits you best.
Do you have any breathing techniques you use to calm down your mind and body? I’d love to hear them in the comments!