How breathing can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression

Life starts, and it ends with a breath. Our very life depends on it. When a person is stressed or anxious, breathing becomes quick and shallow that comes directly from the chest. This type of breathing is called chest breathing, and it disturbs the balance of the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body leading to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dizziness, anxiety, and panic attacks. The brain releases a stress hormone known as cortisol, which alerts the body to activate a counter mechanism, known as a relaxation response for this. Relaxation response works in the following ways: (1)

  • Relaxes the muscles and slows the heartbeat.
  • Decreases blood pressure.
  • Increases nitric oxide levels.
  • Slows and calms the breathing.
  • Raises the feeling of calm and well being. 

Effects of stress on our body’s immune system

The central nervous system( CNS), endocrine system, and immune system are interlinked with each other. During times of high stress, the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced, hence getting more prone to infections. The body’s stress response system is self-limiting, however long term or chronic stress can ravage the immune system and lowers the immunity against infectious diseases (2).  

How breathing can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression? 

Our breath is one of the most powerful and effective stress management tools we involuntarily carry with us throughout the day. Conscious, mindful, and deep breathing deepens relaxation and elevates peace within. It increases alertness and allows the body to release toxins readily. Breathing exercises are the natural tranquilizers for the nervous system, and they provide an extremely effective, simple, and convenient way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Our breath acts as a connection between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. During stressful moments sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) get in and activate the stress response or fight-flight response. Whereas, mindful and conscious breathing activates stretch receptors in the lungs that in turn, activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) interrupting the stress loop (3). 

By becoming aware of your breathing, the likelihood of spiraling into anxiety or panic attack is lowered. Here are several breathing exercises that are useful in relieving stress:

PURSED LIP BREATHING

Pursed-lip breathing (PLB) is the simplest technique that allows people to control their ventilation, oxygenation, and shortness of breath. This technique helps control breathing rate and shortness of breath causes general relaxation and relieves dyspnea. Pursed lip breathing helps mitigate anxiety by lowering the heart rate. Here’s how you do it: (4)

  • Sit comfortably and keep the lips pressed together tightly except at the center. 
  • Breathe in slowly through the nose for two seconds, keeping the mouth closed. 
  • Breathe out slowly through pursed lips while counting till 4 and repeat at least 10-20 times. 

ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING

Nadi shuddhi, or “alternate nostril breathing” is a simple yet the most powerful breathing technique. “Nadi” is a Sanskrit word meaning subtle energy channel and shuddhi means cleansing or purifying. Alternate nostril breathing reduces stress and anxiety by resetting the vagus nerve, which has a direct effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. It balances both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This breathing technique balances the activity between the left and right nostrils bringing sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems into equilibrium. In this amazing way, it reduces anxiety, stress, and is a great source of the revitalization of mind and body. Below is the basic way of doing this technique: (5)

  • Sit comfortably with your spine erect
  • Place your left hand on the left knee, palm open to the sky.
  • Close the right nostril, using the right thumb and inhale as slowly as you can through the left nostril, then close it with your ring finger. Take some rest. Slowly open and exhale through the right nostril.
  • Inhale slowly, with the right nostril open, then close it with the thumb. Rest for a while and exhale through the left nostril. Once your exhalation is complete, inhale through the left nostril. 
  • This counts as 1 round of Nadi shuddhi. 

DEEP BREATHING

During stressful moments, breathing becomes shallow and quick, and the air is moved in and out through the lungs using shoulders, rather than diaphragm. Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, allows you to take deeper breaths that engage the lower part of the lungs and engages far more of the lung capacity. That means more oxygen gets into the bloodstream. It reduces anxiety and depression, strengthens the diaphragms, and rejuvenates the vital channels of energy. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which ultimately promotes a stress-free state of calmness.  Here’s how you do it: (6)

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  • Breathe in through the nose. Inhale slowly and deeply by counting to four as you hold the breath
  • Exhale all of the air through the nose. 
  • Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. As you breathe in and out, feel the rise and fall of the breathing, more in the abdomen than in the chest. 
  • You have to make the hand that rests over your stomach moves more than the one on the chest. 
  • Take three more slow deep breaths.

Conscious, deep, and mindful breathing is the best antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. Stop whatever you are doing for a while and take a deep breath. Doesn’t it just feel better?

References: 

  1. Birch M. Breathing retraining in anxiety and panic disorder. Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal. 2015 Oct;23(4):31.
  1. Glaser R, Kiecolt-Glaser J. Stress damages immune system and health. Discovery medicine. 2009 Jul 18;5(26):165-9.
  1. Altman, K. E. R. (2002). A brief therapy model to reduce stress by practicing breathing exercises, mindful meditation, and yoga stretching.
  1. Parisien-La Salle S, Rivest EA, Boucher VG, Lalande-Gauthier M, Morisset J, Manganas H, Poirier C, Comtois AS, Dubé BP. Effects of pursed lip breathing on exercise capacity and dyspnea in patients with interstitial lung disease: a randomized, crossover study. Journal of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation and prevention. 2019 Mar 1;39(2):112-7.
  1. Dhungel KU, Malhotra V, Sarkar D, Prajapati R. Effect of alternate nostril breathing exercise on cardiorespiratory functions. Nepal Med Coll J. 2008;10(1):25-7.
  1. Brown RP, Gerbarg PL. Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: part I—neurophysiologic model. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. 2005 Feb 1;11(1):189-201.

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