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Deep breathing exercises: How and why they're so effective

Camryn Rabideau
Camryn Rabideau February, 07, 2020

Baker, green thumb, living well with anxiety

If you've ever been in tizzy over something (and honestly, who hasn't?), chances are at least one person reminded you to stop and take a deep breath. This simple action is a go-to when you need to lower stress and clear your mind, but have you ever wonder why it's so effective?

Luckily, scientists have been exploring how these deep breathing benefits work — and it all has to do with an unexpected connection in your brain.

The science behind deep breathing exercises

Taking a deep, cleansing breath can leave you feeling more relaxed and calm — on the other hand, rapid, uncontrolled breathing is often associated with stress, anxiety or panic. It took years to figure out but, scientists finally found an explanation for why, exactly, this happens.Beautiful woman breathing fresh air

There's a part of your brain known as the "breathing pacemaker," and as you might have guessed, it controls your breathing rhythm. It's made up of a whopping 3,000 neurons. One group of these neurons in particular is connected to the part of your brain that moderates feelings of alertness, attention and stress.

When you feel stressed or overly alert, your brain sends a message to your breathing pacemaker, speeding up your breath. But stop and take a slow, deep breath? You essentially override this signal. This, in turn, reduces your stress levels and calms you down. "We now know that the breathing center directly controls the activity of higher order brain functions," explains senior study author Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University.

How to reap these deep breathing benefits

Want to try out some deep breathing exercises for yourself? If you'd like, it can be as simple as taking two or three deep breaths when you find yourself in a stressful situation. However, there are a number of specific exercises you can try as well.

  • Try the 4-7-8 technique. The 4-7-8 method is a classic deep breathing technique for a reason. Simply inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for seven and exhale for eight. This rhythmic breathing pattern can reportedly reduce stress, curb anger and help you fall asleep.
  • Practice belly breathing. If you've ever taken a yoga or meditation class, you might be familiar with belly breathing, which helps you breathe from your diaphragm. It's easiest to do while lying down: With one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach, take a deep breath in through your nose, forcing the air down into your lungs so your stomach rises. Your chest should stay relatively still. Exhale through your mouth, engaging your stomach muscles to push out the air.
  • Focus on your breath. Breath focus is another common breathing technique to help reduce stress and anxiety. The idea is to focus on the feeling of each deep breath slowly entering and leaving your body. As you inhale, silently repeat a word or phrase, such as "peace" or "calm." Then, visualize negative energy leaving your body on the exhale.

Deep breathing benefits are nothing to scoff at — this exercise may be simple, but it actually benefits your mind on a neurological level. The next time you're feeling overwhelmed, give it a try. A calmer, more composed you is only a breath away.

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