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The Power of Breath: Harnessing Breathing Exercises for Improved Mental and Physical Well-being

by Christine Morrison, LMHC

Breathing is an essential, automatic function that we often take for granted. However, mindful and controlled breathing can have a significant impact on our mental and physical well-being.1 In this article, we will explore the benefits of various breathing exercises and provide practical steps to incorporate them into your daily routine.

Understanding the Benefits of Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises can have a profound effect on both mental and physical health, including:

  1. Reduced stress and anxiety: Mindful breathing exercises can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts stress and anxiety.2
  2. Improved focus and mental clarity: Focusing on the breath can help clear the mind of distractions, improving focus and cognitive function.3
  3. Enhanced emotional regulation: Conscious breathing can help regulate emotions and increase resilience in the face of stress or adversity.4
  4. Improved cardiovascular health: Regular practice of breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure and improve heart rate variability, indicating better cardiovascular health.5
  5. Increased lung capacity: Deep, controlled breathing can help increase lung capacity and improve overall respiratory function.6

Breathing Exercises to Practice

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, helps strengthen the diaphragm and promotes relaxation.7 To practice, sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your abdomen to rise. Exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing your abdomen to fall. Repeat for several minutes.

4-7-8 Breathing Technique

The 4-7-8 technique, developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, is a simple yet powerful exercise to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.8 To practice, sit comfortably and close your eyes. Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7. Exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat the cycle four times.

Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a technique used to promote relaxation and focus.9 To practice, sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Inhale slowly for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 4. Exhale slowly for a count of 4. Hold the exhale for a count of 4. Repeat the cycle several times.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Alternate nostril breathing is an ancient yogic practice known as Nadi Shodhana, which can help balance the nervous system and reduce stress.10 To practice, sit comfortably with your spine straight. Using your right thumb, close your right nostril and inhale through your left nostril. Close your left nostril with your right ring finger, and exhale through your right nostril. Inhale through your right nostril, close it, and exhale through your left nostril. This completes one cycle. Repeat for several minutes.

Tips for Incorporating Breathing Exercises into Your Life

  1. Create a routine: Set aside a specific time each day to practice your chosen breathing exercises, such as first thing in the morning or before bedtime. Consistency can help solidify the habit and maximize the benefits.
  2. Use technology: Utilize smartphone apps or online resources to guide you through breathing exercises and help you stay on track with your practice.
  3. Combine with other relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises can be combined with other relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga, to further enhance their effects.
  4. Practice in various settings: Incorporate breathing exercises into different aspects of your life, such as during work breaks, while commuting, or before engaging in a challenging task.
  5. Be patient and persistent: It may take some time to notice the benefits of regular breathing exercises, so be patient and commit to practicing consistently.

Breathing exercises offer numerous benefits for mental and physical health, including reduced stress, improved focus, and enhanced emotional regulation. By incorporating diaphragmatic breathing, the 4-7-8 technique, box breathing, and alternate nostril breathing into your daily routine, you can harness the power of breath to improve your overall well-being.

_ _ _


  1. Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part I-neurophysiologic model. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(1), 189-201.
  2. Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 353.
  3. Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.
  4. Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(12), 1849-1858.
  5. Mahtani, K. R., Nunan, D., Heneghan, C. J., et al. (2012). Device-guided breathing exercises in the control of human blood pressure: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Hypertension, 30(5), 852-860.
  6. Martarelli, D., Cocchioni, M., Scuri, S., & Pompei, P. (2011). Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011.
  7. Russo, M. A., Santarelli, D. M., & O'Rourke, D. (2017). The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe, 13(4), 298-309.
  8. Weil, A. (2000). The art and science of breathing. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 284(19), 2437.
  9. Jerath, R., Edry, J. W., Barnes, V. A., & Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses, 67(3), 566-571.
  10. Nivethitha, L., Mooventhan, A., & Manjunath, N. K. (2017). Effects of various prāṇāyāma on cardiovascular and autonomic variables. Ancient Science of Life, 37(1), 72-77.

Cover photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

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