7 Daily Breathing Exercises to a Stress-Free and Healthier Life
Breathing is the essence of life since oxygen is the one resource we cannot do without for extended periods of time. We take 20 - 25,000 breaths each day, and with every breath, we intake trillions of air molecules. On top of making our lives possible, breathing also has the power to modulate the many systems of the body, and is a strong indicator of our present state. We all feel that sense of ease in our breathing when we’re having a good day. Of course, we’ve also felt how our breathing and heart rate speeds up during those particularly stressful moments in life, causing us to feel not very good both physically and mentally.
Why breathing is important to your health & stress level
When it comes to improving health, you might think we’re better off focusing strictly on factors like diet and exercise, since breathing is already automatic. After all, as long as we’re getting the air that we need, it doesn’t matter how we get it, right? Recent research now reveals how we breathe has a massive impact on many facets of our health, including stress levels.
Right now with COVID-19, you and your members might be feeling elevated levels of stress. In our recent Hinge Health Survey Report: New Health Risks in the Remote Workplace, we found that close to half of remote workers are feeling stress, anxiety and depression and over 96% are feeling anxious one or more days a week. Since the breath has a major impact on our stress levels, retraining your breathing through simple techniques can not just help to combat stress when it arises, but prevent us from becoming overly stressed in the first place. Here’s why, and how you can retrain your breathing, too.
The Science of Breath
While we can breathe through our nose or mouth, each has vastly different effects on our health.
The nose is the body’s natural breathing apparatus. Nasal breathing actually helps regulate the chemistry of your body in various ways, so you can function at your best. For one, breathing through your nose promotes the “rest-and-digest” state, and can help us move through stressful situations with calm and resilience. This happens because it makes us use the diaphragm, a flat muscle located underneath our lungs that allows the lungs to expand to their fullest capacity. The deeper and more relaxed breaths signal to the rest of the body that it’s okay to rest and take it easy, thus reducing stress.
The benefits go beyond diaphragmatic breathing. The small hairs that line the nasal passage help filter the inhaled air of bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants, and the sinuses warm and humidify cold, dry air to body temperature as it travels to the lungs. Additionally, since the greater resistance from inhaling through the nose makes our lungs expand, oxygen uptake can increase by up to 20 percenta. Nitric oxide levels in the blood also increase, another important gas that allows the body to better oxygenate tissues and normalize blood pressure.
Compare this to mouth breathing. In the past, breathing through your mouth was useful when we needed to summon extra energy to survive, kicking our “fight-or-flight” response into gear on a whim. As a result, our bodies start using the upper chest muscles to breathe, making breathing more rapid and shallow. In other words, breathing through your mouth puts the body in a state of stress and actually causes us to release too much carbon dioxide, throwing off the proper ratio in the body. Frequent mouth breathing is associated with elevated blood pressure, poorer memory and concentration, dehydration, asthma, sleep issues like snoring and sleep apnea, along with dental and orthodontic issues. In fact, the nasal passages actually begin to narrow when we habitually breathe through the mouth, similar to how muscles atrophy when we don’t use them.
If breathing through the nose is so beneficial, why wouldn’t our bodies naturally breathe this way all the time? It turns out that many of us have picked up habitual or partial mouth breathing throughout life, indicated by the rise in related issues throughout the population. One study conducted in 2017 showed that 55% of the children tested were prone to mouth breathing.
The good news is that in most cases we can quickly train ourselves to breath through our nose again by being conscious of it and practicing helpful techniques. You may feel like you don’t breathe through your mouth very much, but being such a simple yet fundamental part of health, it might be worth taking a closer look. We need to teach our bodies to breathe through the nose during all parts of the day, while working, exercising, resting, and sleeping. So, here are 7 exercises and strategies to get you back on track and reap the benefits for your health.
7 nose breathing exercises & strategies to improve your stress and health
1. Journaling: Try keeping a journal to make note of when your breathing changes throughout the day. Notice the situations where it becomes shorter or more strained, or when your mouth falls open unconsciously. With sleep, if you find that you wake up frequently and/or with a dry mouth, that could be an indication of breathing through your mouth during the night. Using the insights from your journal, when you notice your breath becoming strained, simply revert to deep, slow nasal breaths as best as you can. If you are in a particularly stressful situation, it may not feel like much is happening, as your body is already stressed, but practicing slow breathing through your nose still encourages your nervous system to reset.
2. Oral Posture: Placing the tongue flat on the roof of the mouth with the tip resting against teeth promotes breathing through your nose. To test it, place your tongue flat on the roof of your mouth, open your mouth, and try breathing through it. You won’t be able to unless you lift your tongue! This can also have longer-term benefits on facial and airway structure. Some research shows that the sutures that hold our jaw and skull bones together are actually constantly shifting throughout life, and can be moulded to support a forward jaw.
3. Exercise: Make an effort to keep your mouth closed while exercising. At first, you might have to reduce intensity, but once your body adapts, it will be even more aerobically efficient!
4. Extended exhale: If you find yourself yawning, extend your exhale and hold your breath for a few seconds. This will help to rebalance the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your body. This is also a useful tactic for stressful situations, as it promotes relaxation.
5. Cues: You might also try keeping an object or totem as a reminder during your workday. Place in on your desk, or try setting your phone background to an image that will remind you to be aware of your breathing.
6. Mouth Tape: Skin-friendly surgical tape or tapes designed specifically for mouth taping can be used as a way to shift breathing to the nose. This can be especially helpful during those more unconscious activities if you notice you have a tendency to mouth breathe while focused. You can also try taping before going to bed to help prevent mouth breathing during sleep.
7. Conscious breathing practice: You might also try setting aside some time, even just 5 minutes a day, to relax and direct your attention towards your breathing.
With these strategies, you will be on your way to retraining and reinforcing optimal breathing habits. It should be noted that none of the above are recommended as a replacement for medical treatment. Talk to your doctor before undergoing any major changes with breathing behaviors.
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Michael Craigen is a health coach at Hinge Health. For the last 5 years, he has helped individuals navigate and overcome chronic pain through ongoing lifestyle and mindset support. A board-certified health coach since 2018, he has a master's degree in Integrative Health from the California Institute of Integral Studies.