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How To Breathe Better For Pain and Stress Relief

12 December 2018

What if there were a simple, free way to reduce your levels of stress, anxiety, and physical pain while improving your health, your productivity, and even your relationships?

That would be amazing, right? Well, if you’re breathing right now (and if not, please start), you have just such an amazing tool at your disposal, and it’s with you every moment of your waking life!

So you might be wondering, if our breath can help us in all these ways, why are so many of us plagued with stress, pain, and anxiety? The problem is that we’ve forgotten how to breathe in a way that gives us these fantastic benefits.

Breathing is the first thing we learn how to do in life — it comes naturally, usually followed by a bit of wailing. Over time, we learn to suppress our cries (and many other forms of emotional expression), and our breathing becomes stifled. We forget what it is supposed to feel like.

We end up breathing too fast, too high, and too shallowly. We don’t fill our lungs fully, meaning we get too little oxygen and keep too much carbon dioxide. This type of breathing keeps us in a state of stress, our fight-or-flight responses engaged. We can’t fully relax, we can’t digest food properly, we develop pain, and our immune systems get worn down by survival hormones.

Yay modern life.

Benefits of Better Breathing

The good news is we can change a lot of these conditions by taking a little time each day to retrain our breathing. Yogis have known this for centuries, incorporating pranayama, or breath control, as a fundamental aspect of the practice.

By learning to use our breath consciously, we can maintain a greater sense of baseline calm as well as better equip ourselves to face challenges and perceived threats.

This can play a crucial role in our relationships (and thus our success in life) — if we can sense when a situation is becoming emotionally charged and use our breath to calm ourselves, we can think more clearly and come up with the most effective response. Psychologist Stan Tatkin discusses this in his book Wired For Love, pointing out a calming effect of slow exhalations on the nervous system.

Another key physiological benefit of natural breathing is improved Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which has become a recognized marker for nervous system health. A higher HRV means your heart rate will change appropriately based on your environment and activities. A low HRV means you tend to get stuck in one mode and have more difficulty adapting, both physically and emotionally, to changing circumstances.

Studies have also linked better breathing to improvements in blood pressure, blood pH, mood, and pain conditions, and a reduction in stress hormones like cortisol.

Improve Your Breathing With These Simple Practices

So what is the best way to breathe? Science has validated much of the wisdom of ancient traditions such as yoga.

The 5.5 Breath

Researchers studying the effects of breath patterns on HRV published their findings in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. 5.5 breaths per minute with even inhalations and exhalations produced a higher HRV than 6 breaths per minute, and both produced much higher HRV than normal breathing.

Many people take as many as 20 breaths per minute when they’re not paying attention to their breathing, almost 4 times as many as these findings suggest! Practicing slower breathing regularly may help improve your overall HRV, even if your baseline breathing pattern remains faster. The methods below will help you get started.

Abdominal Breathing

Most people breathe in their upper chest, using muscles in their torso, shoulders and neck to lift the ribs in order to breathe. This means they only use the upper part of the lungs. Medical science and traditional breathwork systems however both advise abdominal, or diaphragmatic, breathing in order to get full air exchange and other benefits.

Abdominal breathing engages the diaphragm, an umbrella-shaped muscle that separates your lungs and heart from your abdominal organs. It’s your most efficient muscle for breathing, but for chest breathers (most of us), it goes underutilized.

Training the diaphragm allows you to use your full lung capacity, and it also tends to naturally slow the breath rate. It also provides an internal massage for spinal muscles and abdominal organs, helping prevent back stiffness and ensure proper circulation and waste elimination.

To get started, try this 3-minute audio guide from Duke Integrative Medicine, and check out these exercises for additional practice. Be sure not to lock your chest when working on diaphragmatic breathing — it’s not about one or the other, but about using the full capacity of your lungs in a relaxed manner.

Pursed-Lip Breathing

This technique helps develop a slow, relaxed exhalation, which is missing in typical breathing patterns. Simply take a normal breath in, then purse your lips like you were blowing through a straw, and slowly let the air out.

Benefits of this practice include making breathing easier, slowing the breath rate, maximizing removal of toxic CO2  and triggering a relaxation response.

Box breathing

An alternate method to the 5.5 breath described above, this practice helps create a calm, grounded mental state that even Navy Seals find exceptionally helpful.

The “box” refers to a four-step breathing rhythm, with equal-length inhalations and exhalations and pauses between each that are also the same length (typically four seconds or longer). Start by exhaling, then hold for four seconds, with as little tension as possible. Inhale for four, and hold again for four. Exhale for four, then hold again. Repeat this cycle for 5 minutes or longer.

Be sure not to clamp down when holding, and try to maintain an even flow of air when inhaling or exhaling.

Alternate nostril breathing

A yogic practice known as nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing has been known for centuries to create a sense of calm, quieting the mind and reducing tension. Hilary Clinton described using the practice to calm her anxiety after the 2016 US presidential election.

The basic method involves using your thumb and ring finger to alternately close and open each nostril, inhaling through one and exhaling through the other, then switching. Check out this video for a walkthrough of the practice.

Developing Healthy Breathing

Any of these breathing methods can help calm your nerves and reduce pain and tension in your body. We encourage you to try these different methods and see what works best for you. You may want to pick one or two, or rotate between all of them throughout your week.

With a little daily practice, you can use breath work to gain control over your emotions and your health. Share your results in the comments!