An intro to breathing techniques

You do it all the time, but you could do it better. Here’s how the simple act of taking a deep breath could revolutionise your work-life, sleep, and PBs...

These days, stress is all around us. But whether it’s too much news, commute-anger, or inexplicable anxiety, pausing to just breathe can help you master your response. 

As half a decade plus of everything from the pandemic to rising inflation kicks our stress into overdrive, now might be a good time to learn some techniques for yourself. In fact, even pre-pandemic 74 per cent of the UK population reported feeling overwhelmed at least one a month. Meanwhile, a government study published in December 2021 found that 822,000 UK workers are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

It’s no surprise, then, that we’re all in need of a helping hand. Which is why we’ve put together this beginner’s guide to breathing techniques. 

With a different response for different situations, master the few that apply to you then keep them to hand as your first line of defence for your wellbeing, blood pressure, and sanity.

Why are breathing techniques beneficial?

“When we intentionally change the way we breathe, we can change the way we respond to life itself ,” says Dora Kamau, a mindfulness and meditation teacher at Headspace. “Whether it's taking a deep breath to pause and take our time to respond, or to do a few cycles of box breathing to ease our anxiety, we’re able to change our internal states, which leads us to change our approach and relationship to everything external to us.”

Kamau likens breathwork to a more active form of meditation, where we are intentionally changing our pattern of breathing to bring about a calmer response. But what does actual science say? 

A 2018 study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience ran with the title ‘How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life’ – a solid endorsement. The study found consciously taking control of the breath enhanced “autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility.” In other words, the automatic stress response was dampened and greater emotional control was displayed in test subjects, leading to increased psychological wellbeing. 

Another study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that breath work helps us focus our attention, bolster a more positive outlook, and reduce stress. Meanwhile, another study in the same publication highlighted breathwork’s beneficial effect on insomnia. 

What do we get wrong when it comes to breathing techniques?

Is it as simple as just breathing in and out? Well, yes and no. “We have to be aware of the way the body is breathing,” explains Kamau. “Before I started practicing mindful breathing, I really had no idea just how shallow my breath was. As I became more consistent in my practice, I realised that my breath was only going as far as my chest, which if you have anxiety, shallow breathing can make it worse.”

Kamau explains that there aren’t any “bad natural breathing habits” but recommends the book Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown (a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology) for those wishing to become a true master. 

How can breathing techniques help me in different situations?

You might not have time to practice a full-on meditation but as Kamau explains, breathwork is a great tool for grounding yourself in a stressful situation.

Here, then, are some breathing exercises catered to specific everyday situations. 

Master commute stress

“Stress can very easily have a visceral effect on our bodies,” explains Kirsty Raynor, a mindset coach and qualified meditation teacher specialising in vedic or ‘transcendental’ meditation. “We can feel stress in the pit of our stomach and even shortness of breath. One of the simplest techniques is to use belly breathing in this situation. Put both of your hands onto your stomach, relax the muscles. As you breathe in, the belly expands. As you exhale, allow the belly to relax slowly and absorb the feeling.”

End a HIIT workout

“A HIIT workout activates your fight or flight system so any type of breathing exercise that engages your parasympathetic nervous system will allow you to finish your workout feeling balanced,” explains Zoë Aston, UK mental health expert at Headspace. “Try breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of five and breathing out for a count of six.”

Focus before a big meeting

“The most important thing about a big meeting is pace,” says Raynor. When we’re stressed we struggle, perhaps talking too quickly to get everything out. “Finding the time and cadence to say what you need to is important. A great way to prepare for this is using box breath. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breath out for four, hold for four, and repeat.” Imagine your breath travelling around a square where each side is four seconds long.

Hit a PB

“This is all about not letting your fight or flight system take over,” says Aston. “As you bypass your personal bests, you are asking your body to do something it’s never done before, and generally our nervous systems start to tell us to stop. If you start to feel anxious or panicked as you approach a PB, take two in-breaths followed by an extended out-breath, repeat this until you clear the fear that might be holding you back.”

Get to sleep

“The body scan is great for sleep,” says Raynor. “While laying down in bed, close your eyes and imagine sending your breath to one part of the body at a time. For example, send your breath to your forehead, then your eyebrows, allow your eyelids to feel heavy, relax the cheeks etc. Use this process from head to toe and absorb the benefits of how relaxing this technique is.”

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