Deep Breathing: A Complete Guide to the Relaxation Technique

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If you’re reading this, you’re breathing. What’s interesting about breathing is we do it regardless of whether we’re thinking about it. Yet we can also voluntarily control our breathing when we are conscious of our breathing patterns. For example, we can choose to control our breath by slowing it down, speeding it up, or taking shallow or deep breaths.

How we breathe affects our health. By breathing more deeply or controlling our breath intentionally, we can impact our body in a number of positive ways, says Baxter Bell, MD, a certified yoga instructor and medical acupuncturist. “For starters, we can lower our blood pressure and stress level, and think more clearly,” he says. Feeling calm and centered after deep breathing is common, and a breathing practice can promote a greater sense of well-being, he says.

If you’re interested in how deep-breathing works and how it can be beneficial, keep reading to find out more about this valuable health tool that requires no special equipment and can be accessed at any moment of your day.

What Is the Function of Breathing?

There are two phases of breathing: inhaling (taking breath in) and exhaling (breathing out). When you inhale, the diaphragm — which is the big, dome-shaped muscle located between your chest and abdominal cavities — contracts and moves downward. This creates extra space in the chest cavity, and the lungs expand into it. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes as the amount of air in the lungs is reduced.

Breathing is essential to life because our bodies require oxygen to function; moving your muscles, digesting food, and even reading these words are all body processes that require oxygen. Breathing also helps the body get rid of carbon dioxide, which is created as a waste product of these processes.

What Is Deep Breathing?

“There is an intentionality to deep breathing; you’re really trying to fill your lungs with air. In most cases, you’re not getting that when you are breathing normally,” says Yufang Lin, MD, a doctor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Health System in Ohio. If your breath is shallow, you may be imposing stress on your body unintentionally, or the stress you feel may be contributing to shallow breathing. (More on this later.)

When we’re deep breathing, though, the breath naturally slows down, says Dr. Bell. “When sitting down or doing a nonstrenuous activity, most people, on average, breathe in for about two seconds and breathe out for two seconds,” he says. That’s about what a typical respiration rate is when we’re not really consciously thinking about our breath.

Deep breathing requires you to relax your abdominal region while you take a deep breath in, says Megan Elizabeth Riehl, PsyD, a clinical assistant professor and health psychologist at University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor. “We are more slowly filling the lungs with air as we breathe in and allowing the lungs to expand, which will move the diaphragm [as it contracts]. At the exhale, we release all the air out” as the diaphragm relaxes and the chest wall recoils, she says. In focusing our awareness on this process, we can slow our breathing pattern, she says.

Controlling the breath can be part of a yoga or mindfulness practice, but breath-focused meditation doesn’t have to be deep breathing, says Dr. Riehl. “Some yoga breathing can be similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but it can sometimes be very different. For example, [for] some breathing patterns in yoga, you are supposed to keep your mouth closed,” she says. In diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing, you typically are encouraged to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, she says.

“Breath-focused meditation can be an entry point of bringing you to a mindful place, accepting the present moment for what it is. Your breath is the one true thing that is present in the moment — you can’t breathe ahead, and you can’t breathe backwards,” says Riehl.

“In meditation or guided relaxation, oftentimes the practice will begin with an awareness of your breath as you breathe in and out, but you might not practice deep breathing or change anything about your breath pattern,” she says.

“It might just be an invitation to pay attention to or notice: Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Is it shallow or deep? That aspect of mindfulness or starting a meditation is a little bit different from intentionally practicing diaphragmatic breathing,” says Riehl.

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