Breathing Techniques. Controlling our breathing is one of the most effective means of intervening in our bodily and physiological state. Breathing connects the mind and body. Breathing exercises can help us relax, control anxiety, insomnia, etc. Breathing techniques improve our attention and reduce negative thoughts. Discover here the different breathing techniques, why they work and the advantages and disadvantages of each one of them.
What are breathing techniques and how do they work?
Breathing to relax is not a new technique. Buddhist and Oriental cultures have practiced these techniques for centuries. Meditation and mindfulness exercises rely heavily on respiratory control.
Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the involuntary activity of the organism when we are at rest. Shallow breathing stimulates the sympathetic system, which is responsible for putting into operation different organs to prepare us for action. The latter is the one that is activated during periods of stress, and its activity is the one that we want to counteract by learning different breathing techniques.
Of all automatic responses, respiration is practically the only one we can voluntarily control (along with blinking). It is a gateway to our body’s autonomous system, which we can use to send messages to our brain.
The following are various breathing techniques which, although they can be used in any case, are especially effective for specific purposes.
Breathing Techniques: Different types of breathing.
Because it is a type of shallow breathing, the ribcage does not allow the lungs to expand as much as they would in deeper breathing.
How do you know if you normally use this type of breathing? Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen and breathe normally. Which of the two hands rises? If the upper one rises, your breath is clavicular, if the lower one is abdominal. There are people which both hands rise, this means that the breathing is quite deep and could be adequate.
This type of breathing is inefficient because the greatest amount of blood to collect oxygen occurs in the lower areas of the lungs, which implies that you are getting little oxygen. This rapid and shallow breathing results in poor transmission of oxygen to the blood and therefore little nutrients to the tissues.
- Advantages of clavicular breathing: This type of breathing provides us with oxygen quickly, and can be useful when we have to run to catch the bus.
- Disadvantages of clavicular breathing: Oxygen supply is insufficient, and maintained over time can increase stress and make our brain and our body not functioning properly.
Diaphragmatic or deep breathing
Diaphragmatic or deep breathing, also called abdominal breathing, consists of bringing air to the lower part of your lungs, using the muscles of the diaphragm. You will see your abdomen rise, hence its name.
For many, deep breathing may be strange and unnatural. This may be because in our society it is desirable to have a flat belly, and for this, especially women, tend to retain their abdominal muscles and in turn prevent a deep breath. It also happens because of continued stress and anxiety that maintains clavicular breathing his abdominal contraction may also be due to stress and continued stress.
- Advantages of diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing: This breathing technique allows a complete flow of oxygen to our body, allowing it to function properly. The heart rate goes down as does the blood pressure.
- Disadvantages of diaphragmatic or deep breathing: This breathing technique has no disadvantage other than the need to learn it, since many people do not have it automated.
In thoracic breathing, the intercostal muscles intervene, and with it, the rib cage. Usually this type of breathing is done to make us aware of this part of the body. It is not used independently but rather as an additional phase for complete breathing.
Deep or complete breathing requires the air entering your nostrils to fill the different areas of your lungs. When you breathe deeply your abdomen (or belly), your diaphragm rises and your chest. In the following section we describe in detail how to carry it out.
- Advantages of Complete Breathing: This breathing technique provides the body with a superior state of calm and relaxation. Our body receives a large supply of oxygen, reducing our heart rate, blood pressure and blood cortisol levels, which increase anxiety symptoms when high.
- Disadvantages of Complete Breathing: While deep breathing can be done automatically, complete breathing can’t since it is somewhat more complicated to perform if we are not used to it. This is part of the breathing exercises, as we will detail below.
Breathing Techniques to Calm Anxiety
When we want to practice breathing techniques we have to first find a comfortable place to do it. Sit with our backs straight and our arms supported. The room should be a pleasant temperature and not too bright. Focus on your current breathing and determine if it is very agitated and more clavicular?
Complete Breathing Technique
One of the most effective breathing techniques to lessen our anxiety is the complete breathing method, which we mentioned earlier. To do it correctly first we must be aware of the different types of breathing.
- Place your hand on the chest and another on the belly. Through inhalation, you raise only the upper hand. Hold the air and expel it through your mouth to make it more conscious. Repeat a couple of times
- Now, with your hands in the same position we will try to raise your lower hand the one on the belly but not the chest. Repeat a couple of times more.
- Then, when inhaling, bring the air to the lower part and then to the upper part, causing the lower hand to rise first and then one on the chest.
- When we have already mastered it, we will perform complete breaths making a slight pause between inhalation and exhalation. Each process of inhalation and exhalation should last about the same time.
Asymmetric breathing technique
Another breathing technique is by making the inhalation shorter and lengthening the exhalation. For example, breathing in at one time and exhaling in 5 or 6. This is particularly effective because our heart rate increases with inhalation and decreases when the air is expelled. In this way, by extending this expulsion we are enhancing those effects.
Resistance breathing technique
The resistance breathing technique consists in creating, a resistance when releasing the air. There are many ways to create resistance, for example by blowing air through your mouth with your lips together, hissing through your teeth, through a straw, or even through singing. We can emit sounds with the exhalation, like the Ohm syllable, or simply vibrating our vocal cords. This sound resonates our rib cage and our skull providing a very pleasant sensation.
Dynamic breathing technique
There is a type of breathing that requires some imagination but can become very relaxing. As you inhale, imagine a wave covering your body from head to toe. Look at the different parts of the body and relax them if you notice tension. When you release the air, imagine that the wave is retreating from head to toe.
How do we know that we are relaxing? If the relaxation is being effective, you may feel a kind of tingling or heat on your fingertips.
Breathing techniques for sleeping
Symmetrical breathing for better sleep
Place one hand on the chest and one hand on the abdomen. Inhale through the nose in four takes, making sure that it is your belly that swells (not the chest). Exhale through the nose in four other takes. If your body asks you, you can extend both inhalation and exhalation to 5 or 6 takes. Then you can perform two or three normal breaths and return to inspiration and exhalation in 4 or 6 strokes. You can repeat the cycles five or six times.
This technique is useful to calm us in any situation, but works very well before going to bed. Counting your breaths helps keep unwanted thoughts from interfering with our sleep.
You can vary this technique by replacing counting for words such as inhale-exhale, etc. If 4 intakes of air are too much you can make it shorter.
Fractional breathing for better sleep
This technique is similar to the previous one but now you will hold your breath. Inhale in 4 takes, hold the air counting to 4 and exhale in 4 takes. Then two or three normal breaths and it starts again.
Breathing Techniques for Attention
Breathing exercises can help us improve our focus and concentration. In this way, we will not only improve when working or studying, but we will manage to control unwanted thoughts.
Alternate Breathing to Improve our Attention
A very effective exercise to focus our attention is alternate breathing. To do this place your fingers on the nostrils as if you were to cover your nose. When you take air, lightly move a finger to cover one of the nostrils. When you release the air, open the nostril that you had closed and at the same time with a single movement of the hand, close the opposite nostril. To visualize it better, form with your hand the letter C and make lateral movements, from right to left alternately covering a nostril at a time.
There are variants to this technique. You can alternate the order of the inhale-exhale nostrils. For example, you can inhale on the left, exhale on the right, and then inhale on the right and exhale on the left.
This type of breathing is very useful to focus attention and fill you with energy. That is why it is not the most appropriate to do before bed.
Breathing techniques for children
Teaching children to control their breathing and using it to calm themselves is one of the best long-term investments that can be made. Support and encourage your children to practice breathing regularly and do it consciously, as if it were a habit. Teach them the different breathing techniques and how they affect how they feel.
- Breathing the flowers: To practice this breathing technique imagine that you are smellin flower, draw air through your nose and expel through your mouth. By using flowers you can teach children to connect with their breathing and learn how it makes them feel.
- Bee breathing: This breathing technique is practiced sitting or lying comfortably, close your eyes. Breathe through your nose and cover your ears. Vibrate the vocal cords making the sound “mmm”. The sound resonance has a great soothing effects that children often enjoy.
- Rabbit’s Breathing: Perform three short, quick inhalations and release the air slowly. Role-play that the children are rabbits and they are on a scavenger hunt. This breathing technique can be very useful for children who find it difficult understand their breathing.
How to create a breathing routine
To master these breathing techniques and find out which one works best for you, constant practice is necessary. These tips can help you keep the practice going.
- Choose a quiet place where you can sit or lie comfortably.
- Don’t worry if you do not get it on your first try, with practice you will improve.
- Try to practice every day 5 or 10 minutes in the morning. If you feel like it, you can extend the practice time. Don’t be too ambitious at first.
- Practice the breathing techniques always at the same time of the day, for example before bed, or when waking up. This will make it easier to create a habit.
Some people find breathing techniques difficult to master or not to their liking. Another healthy way to control breathing is through exercise, progressive relaxation techniques or yoga.
This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Psicóloga General Sanitaria y sexóloga. Deseosa de mejorar la calidad de vida de las personas mediante la práctica clínica y la comunicación a través de la red.