Because breathing is something our body does naturally without us having to think about it, as with blinking or sending nerve impulses, it is rarely something we focus on.
Only when something occurs to make us aware of our breathing – such as climbing a flight of stairs, a surprise scare in a movie or a held gasp when we stub our toe – do we become aware of how our breath regulates and responds to our mood and physical state.
“Breathing rapidly causes an increase in activity across a network of brain structures, including the amygdala, the emotional centre of our brain,” says Dr Shaima Al Fardan, clinical psychologist at Camali Clinic for mental health in Dubai.
“Such activity in the amygdala may trigger feelings like anxiety, anger, or even make us more attuned to fear.”
The links between breathing and mental health have long been known. If we’re upset or stressed out, breathing quickens and becomes shallower. This exacerbates anxiety and breathing becomes shallower still, creating a cycle of fear and hyperventilation.
In contrast, when we sleep or are in a state of deep relaxation, breathing lengthens and deepens.
Also well known is the relationship between breathing techniques and pain management, with slow, deep breathing a major factor in aiding childbirth or after an injury.
“The truth is our breath, when you learn to be intentional about it, can help us change our mood, thoughts and experience,” says Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director at The LightHouse Arabia wellness centre in Dubai.
The effects of breath awareness on mental health
Deep breathing is an extremely effective way to lower stress levels. When we breathe deeply, we are sending a message to our brain to relax and calm down, a message that is then relayed to the body. In this way, the physical body feeds into the emotional.
“The profound mental health benefits of breathing techniques have often been underestimated,” says Al Fardan. “The neurobiology behind how breathing may calm our emotions gives us insight into how this process works.
"A ‘bottom-up’ approach states that if we reduce the stress in the body, this will have a positive cascading effect into the emotions.
"As the emotions improve, this will have a positive cascading effect into a person’s thinking. The bottom-up approach accepts that feelings or even body sensations happen first.”
Hand in hand with the physical side of breathing is the spiritual aspect. Conscious breathing plays a major part in activities aimed at nourishing mind, body and soul, such as yoga and meditation.
“The key to good mental health is to keep our life force balanced, flowing, and functional,” says Shadi Enbashi, co-founder of Seva Experience wellness space in Dubai.
“Breath is the instrument through which we can manipulate our mental state by controlling the flow of life through our being.
“Breathing techniques have the ability to bring the balance and mental clarity that can enrich and enhance our mental abilities through which we perceive the world around and within us.”
Techniques to try: from Navy Seal box breathing to alternate nostril
There are many different types of conscious breathing, some aimed at achieving lower stress and mental clarity, while others are focused on increasing stamina and lung capacity for sports.
Equal breathing, abdominal breathing and the 4-7-8 count, in which practitioners inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven then exhale deeply and completely for a count of eight, are among the most common and accessible for beginners.
“One of my favourites is the 4-7-8, AKA the ‘natural tranquilliser for the nervous system’,” says Afridi. “The counting and breathing relaxes me immediately and gets me out of my negative thoughts patterns.”
For a breathing practice that aims to de-stress in super-quick time, look to a technique developed by the US Navy Seals, the nature of whose work requires them to de-escalate stress levels in a short space of time.
The elite special operations force created the concept of box breathing, in which practitioners picture a box with equal sides and every inhalation and exhalation is to the count of four.
Allowing the mind to travel up, across and down each side of the box for the count of four anchors attention and quickly regulates rhythmic breathing.
“I use Nadi Shodhan pranayama, also known as Anulom Vilom pranayama,” says Janani Satchithanantham, a dietitian at Dubai's Aster Hospital, of what is also called alternate nostril breathing.
“This technique helps clear blocked energy channels, thus calming the mind. It is recommended to practise this pranayama on an empty stomach two to three times a day to harmonise and purify the energy channels.”
Physical benefits of conscious breathing
As well as aiding mental health, mindful breathing has myriad physical benefits, from lowering blood pressure to improving lung function.
“Mindful breathing techniques can regulate chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia,” says Arun Kumar, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinic, Bur Dubai and Aster Hospital.
“It acts by altering the autonomic nervous system, decreasing the sympathetic activity and increasing the parasympathetic tone, and consequently the other systems including the stress response cycle.
“It can also help to control blood pressure and improves lung functions, especially in illnesses like bronchial asthma.”
When it comes to exercise and sport, maintaining a regular breathing schedule may also enhance performance.
“Regular breathing exercises also promote faster recovery from physical exertion, improved sports performance, enhanced creativity and more focus and mental clarity,” says Al Fardan.
‘Different breaths for different times of day’
Just as we eat different foods at different times of day, or carry out different activities in the morning, afternoon and evening, practising certain breathing techniques at certain times of the day can have different effects.
“There are different types of breaths for different times of day,” says Afridi. “It would be important to educate yourself on which breath to use at which time of day.
"I recommend learning one energising technique, one relaxation and one to do before bedtime.”
Satchithanantham says: “The best time to practice pranayama with meditation is early morning before sunrise.
"The early morning atmosphere is cool, silent and filled with fresh air, which is good for one’s respiratory organs.”
Experts also point to the ease and practicality of learning and mastering breathing techniques because they require no equipment, and can be done anywhere, slotted into even the busiest schedule.
“The thing with breath is that it can be done anywhere, anytime,” Afridi says. “You could be at home, in a car, on a plane or in an office and employ the breath to alter your state of mind and body to the one you want.”
Tips for beginners
“Commit to applying a daily practice at a convenient time and place, and have clarity on what you are to practice and for how long,” Enbashi says.
Setting reminders throughout the day, by creating phone alerts or through an app, is an easy way to remember to take time out to practise.
“I recommend the Breathwrk app,” Afridi says. “It’s one of my favourites and takes the thinking out of breathing. It also gives you cool and relaxing images to look at while you breathe along to their suggested programme.
“Don’t feel intimidated by different techniques and do the very basic ones to begin with. Once you have mastery over those, you can move to a more advanced breath-work regimen.”
Whether sitting at your desk, driving your car or in the checkout queue at the supermarket, learning a new breathing technique is one of the quickest, easiest and most accessible ways to carry out self-care.
“If you set the alarm for 60 seconds right this moment, close your eyes and start breathing deeply through the nostrils, you have already taken a step,” Enbashi says.