One of the fastest ways to feel better emotionally is to improve your physical state — and you can do that by simply changing how you breathe.
The mind and body are closely connected. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising will positively affect your mood. On the flip side, being sleep-deprived, not eating properly, and not taking care of your physical needs will likely make you irritable and frustrated.
It’s a negative cycle that might continue unless you put a stop to it. This is where breathing comes in. Learning how to control your breath is a simple yet powerful way to take back control of your health.
Breathwork is one of the most valuable tools to manage your emotions, and once you learn how to use it, you’ll see how it positively impacts your overall well-being.
Ever notice your breath quickening when you’re afraid? When you’re relaxed, do you find yourself breathing at a slower pace? That’s not a coincidence.
When you’re feeling calm, your nervous system is in a relaxed state, and your breath becomes slower. On the other hand, emotions like fear and anxiety can cause shortness of breath. This is your body’s fight, flight, or freeze response in action.
“When we breathe normally, the body maintains a healthy balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide,” says Dr. Alice Thornewill, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and the co-founder and director of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness.
“However, when we start to feel anxious, we may breathe too much or too little, and this balance gets out of whack. When we breathe too much, also known as hyperventilating, less oxygen makes its way to the brain, and we experience many unpleasant sensations, including dizziness, lightheadedness, increased heart rate, tingling sensations, and blurred vision.”
Your emotions are closely linked with your physiological (body) state, including heart rate, blood pressure, and how you breathe.
“Physiological changes are largely driven by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions,” says Jennifer Hettema, PhD, senior clinical director of LifeStance Health.
“Physiological changes, and the psychological experience of different emotions, adapted because they help us respond to our environment with behaviors that promote survival and successful reproduction. Emotions help us to avoid risks and approach opportunities,” Hettema says.
Experiencing difficult emotions doesn’t mean you’re “out of control.” It’s human nature to feel various emotions, and when you’re feeling sadness, anger, or frustration, reminding yourself that it will pass is helpful.
Allowing yourself to feel the emotions is much healthier for your mental and physical well-being.
A 2017 study in mice suggests that specific nerve cells connect breathing with mental and emotional states. On a neurological level, slow breathing can help promote a feeling of tranquility.
“You can help your own nervous system calm down and regulate itself by using breathwork to simulate a more regulated state for your body,” Hettema explains.
Next time you feel the need to calm your emotions, consider trying one of these breathing exercises:
1. Diaphragmatic breathing
Focus on taking breaths down to your stomach. Make sure your stomach expands every time you inhale and suck your stomach back in when you exhale.
“If you are having trouble getting the hang of this, place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. If you’re breathing correctly, only the hand on your stomach should move,” Thornewill says.
“If you’re still having trouble, try this exercise lying down on the ground — you will automatically engage in diaphragmatic breathing,” she adds.
2. Paced breathing
Breathe in for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 4, and exhale for 6. When you make your
3. Meditative breathing
Try practicing some meditation with your breathing.
“On your inhale, think ‘1’ to yourself, and on your exhale think ‘relax.’ On your next inhale, think ‘2,’ and on your exhale, think “relax” until you reach 10, and then go back to 1,” says Thornewill.
Once you get the hang of diaphragmatic breathing, you can begin practicing throughout the day. You don’t have to do a full-blown meditation exercise.
“You can practice these breathing techniques while you’re filling up your water bottle, waiting at a red light, or walking to get a coffee,” Thornewill says.
“Set a 2-minute timer and practice your breathing as a break during your workday. Even 2 minutes a day can make a big difference,” she says. “And the more you practice your breathing, the more you will start to notice when you are under or over-breathing and identify how that contributes to your emotions.”