Controlled breathing: the mental and physical health benefits of daily breathwork

Posted by for Mental Health

Whether you’re feeling the pressure of working from home or are struggling to process the latest headlines, controlled breathing could help to reduce your stress levels in under five minutes. Here’s everything you need to know about this simple self-care activity.

At a time when so many of us are struggling to keep our stress levels under control, we’re always on the lookout for a new self-care activity or relaxation practice to help us keep things under control, from mindfulness meditation to vibration yoga.

But despite the myriad of studies proving how good it can be for our mental and physical health, very few of us have opened our eyes to the benefits of one of the simplest techniques out there: controlled breathing.

Of course, the idea that the way we breathe can control the way we think and feel can sound pretty far-fetched. But in reality, our respiratory system is directly linked to our autonomic nervous system – and therefore plays an important role in the way our body reacts to stress.

“Most of us take breathing for granted because we rarely notice it and never have to think about doing it,” explains Kate Gaskell, an intuitive breathwork coach. “Taking conscious control of your breath – a practice often referred to as ‘breathwork’ – has a range of physical, mental and emotional benefits.”

She continues: “By slowing down your breathing rate and extending the length of your breaths (without making yourself uncomfortable), you send powerful signals to your body that you are safe. This helps your body to feel relaxed, which in turn helps your mind to settle.”

Controlled breathing is one of Stylist’s Work 5 a day – a series of mental health breaks designed to encourage mental space, connection, movement and stress reduction throughout your working day to address the rise in burnout seen throughout the pandemic. 

Keep reading to find out more about the surprising benefits of making breathwork part of your daily routine. 

How does controlled breathing work to reduce stress?

A woman practising controlled breathing
Controlled breathing helps reduce stress by moving our body from the sympathetic response state to a para-sympathetic one.

When we’re feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, our body goes into what scientists call a sympathetic response state – often referred to as our fight or flight response. 

At its core, this state is designed to help us escape or confront a dangerous situation – our brain increases blood flow to our muscles and increases our heart and breathing rates to increase the amount of oxygen we’re taking in.

In simple terms, controlled breathing is a way to reverse engineer this response – by doing slowing our breathing and regulating our oxygen intake, we can calm our brain and move it back into the parasympathetic response state, which is responsible for digestion and repair.

This is important because the sympathetic response state is designed to be a short-term or emergency response. In focusing our efforts on the parts of our body that are required to escape or confront danger, the sympathetic response state ‘deprioritises’ other systems in the body, such as our digestive, reproductive and immune systems. 

While in the short term this might not have much of an impact, if we allow our bodies to remain stressed for extended periods of time (such as throughout the working day), the suppression of these key physiological systems can take its toll on our health – it’s why we experience irregular periods if we’re going through a period of intense stress, for example. 

What other benefits does controlled breathing offer?

Controlled breathing is a great way to calm yourself down when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed – but there are a number of other reasons why you might want to consider making it part of your daily routine.

“Bringing awareness to your breath and taking control of your breathing can help massively with focus and concentration,” explains Stuart Sandeman, the UK’s leading breath expert and founder of Breathpod.

“It also helps to support good physical, mental and emotional health, because taking control of your breathing can influence the way you feel, think, act, operate and perform.”

Studies have also shown that breathwork can increase alertness, boost our immune system and even help to reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What are the benefits of making controlled breathing part of your daily routine?

A woman practising controlled breathing
Practising controlled breathing on a daily basis can help to reduce the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in your body.

On top of being an effective way to reduce stress when we’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, controlled breathing has also been shown to have longer-term health benefits when incorporated as part of a regular routine.

A 2017 study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology found that participants who took part in 20 intensive breathwork sessions over eight weeks had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to those who hadn’t done any breathwork.

The study also found that the participants who practised controlled breathing regularly showed a significant increase in their ability to focus and experienced less ‘negative affect’ – a psychological term used to describe negative emotions and expression including sadness, disgust, lethargy, fear and distress. 

How to make breathwork part of your daily routine

The NHS recommends 3-5 minutes of controlled breathing every day, so it shouldn’t be hard to fit in to your daily routine, especially now we’re working from home.

“A simple exercise like inhaling and exhaling for a count of four each, even for just a few minutes, can help to loosen the grip of anxiety or stress,” explains Gaskell.

“You can do it anywhere and anytime and no one even needs to know you’re doing it,” she continues. “I often suggest to clients that they practise conscious breathing when they’re doing something like washing their hands or waiting for the kettle to boil. A little really can go a long way.”

You can also choose to incorporate controlled breathing into your day based on when you tend to feel particularly stressed or need to bring some focus into your day – whether that’s during your lunch break, after a particularly stressful meeting or just before bed.

For Sandeman, incorporating controlled breathing into your morning routine is also a great idea to help you ‘reset’ for the day ahead.

“‘Reset’ first thing every morning with deep, diaphragmatic breathing for three to five minutes,” he recommends. “Also try shaking the body out a bit – when we move the body in that way, it calms the nervous system. It’s a great way to set yourself up for the day ahead so you are ready for action.”

He continues: “Breathpod hosts 20-minute Instagram Lives from Monday-Friday on @breathpod at 7:30am to help kickstart your day. It’s the perfect way to learn more about breathing and incorporate daily breathwork practice at home.”

For more information on controlled breathing, including practices you can use when working from home, you can check out our guides to breathing for anxiety and boosting energy levels. You can also check out the NHS’ guide to breathing for stress on their website.

If working from home is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues to the stress of trying to communicate via technology, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including to anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of WFH wellbeing.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

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