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What are Deep Breathing Exercises?

By Angie Johnson-Schmit
Updated May 17, 2024
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Deep breathing exercises can be a simple and effective way to manage stress and stress-related disorders. These exercises typically are easy to do, cost nothing, and can be done in just about any situation. Psychologists, physicians, and holistic health practitioners often suggest these techniques to help their patients cope with a variety of ailments ranging from anxiety and depression to sleep disorders. Deep breathing exercises have been around for thousands of years and primarily concentrate on the diaphragm rather than filling the chest with air.

Chronic stress can lead to a number of health issues, including depression, muscle pain, insomnia, gastrointestinal problems, and adrenal fatigue. When stressed, people often hold their breath or take breaths that are rapid and shallow. Deep breathing triggers the body’s natural relaxation response, thereby calming the mind and relaxing the body. Taking a deep breath sends a signal to the brain that danger has passed.

Continuing with deep breathing usually results in a slower heart rate, expanded lung capacity, and relaxed muscles. Some research suggests that deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can counteract the negative physical effects of extended periods of acute stress. Since deep breathing strengthens the lungs, it also can be useful in treating asthma and other respiratory problems.

The use of breath control for mental and physical health benefits has existed for thousands of years. Perhaps the oldest system of deep breathing exercises is yoga’s pranayama. Pranayama is loosely defined as the restraint or suspension of breath, and encompasses a number of breathing techniques designed to release stress and bring mind and body into balance. Early studies of yogis suggested that deep breathing and meditation allowed the yogis to control blood pressure and heart rate. More recent clinical studies have suggested that pranayama can speed or slow heart rate depending on which type of breathing technique is used.

Basic deep breathing exercises, however, do not require training in yoga to be effective. The essential elements of deep breathing consist of sitting, standing, or lying down in a relaxed position and focusing on inhalation of air through the nose and exhalation out the mouth. Most people think a deep breath fills the chest, but the correct way is to breathe from the diaphragm.

A person begins by fully exhaling, followed by a deep breath. For those unfamiliar with the technique, it can be helpful to place a hand on the abdomen. As the breath fills the diaphragm, the abdomen will rise. When the breath is released, the abdomen will fall.

Various deep breathing exercises may suggest different counts for inhalation and exhalation, as well as different numbers of repetitions. Regardless of the specific exercise chosen, regular practice is believed to increase the effectiveness of deep breathing. Practicing deep breathing techniques when not under stress can make it that much easier to use when the need is more immediate.

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